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Every month More Voices invites readers to contribute short nonfiction prose pieces of 40 to 400 words on a healthcare theme.



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Judith Lieberman

Over the past several years, I have been dealing with oral cancer. Its inconvenient location--at the base of my tongue, and also in bilateral lymph nodes--made the treatments extremely debilitating. I began with radiation and chemotherapy, but eventually had extensive surgery on my tongue and neck.

While traveling the country seeking medical opinions at our nation's most prominent cancer centers, I also developed a side interest: bird-watching. (Strange as it may seem, the medical habitat teems with many species of fowl, both common and exotic.) I am pleased to share some of my more interesting sightings.

I will begin with the Magnificent Drab-Suited Surgeon, a relatively solitary species of bird exhibiting a strict sense of pecking order. The Drab-Suited Surgeon has sharp talons and seldom ventures from its hospital haunts, preferring to patiently await the arrival of its prey. On occasion you may be privileged to see this bird in its green "display" plumage, complete with the ultimate adornment, the green-crested shower cap. These sightings are striking, but usually take place only in the presence of one of the Drab-Suit's few companion species, the Upland Soporific Anesthesiologist. Thus, the details are often dream-like, blurry and difficult to recall.

The Drab-Suit employs a variety of calls. Occasionally, when unexpectedly challenged or questioned, it bristles its chest feathers; some individuals emit shrill, rasping cries, such as "If anyone else tells you differently, they are just wrong" and "I wrote the book on this." (Whoops, my apologies--the latter was uttered by an Eastern High-Crested Radiation Oncologist.)

However, most Drab-Suits sing steady, well-practiced songs of great depth and complexity. Occasionally one will surprise the traveler by stretching its wings to exhibit its softer, warmly colored downy feathers. This display may be accompanied by quiet vocalizations such as "Don't ever blame yourself for this disease" or "There is no right or wrong choice, but we will do our best for you."

The Drab-Suit can sometimes be seen surrounded by a small, hovering flock of Red-Eyed Residents, which trail after it, gathering scraps left along the way. Some of the youngest Red-Eyes are quite sociable, but their navigational systems may be undeveloped, especially during the migratory months of July and August. In my personal experience, one particularly dark-lidded Red-Eye became lost while guiding me through her native habitat.

Two varieties of the species Oncology--the Tufted Iridescent Radiation Oncologist and the Grey-Crested, Somber-Winged Medical Oncologist--are often found sharing the same habitat. An initial sighting of either of these large birds will undoubtedly prove an unexpected and frightening experience. However, their intelligent eye and broad wingspan usually provide for dependable navigation upon your travels. Having strong wings, these birds soar high and can see farther than the traveler. Among their common vocalizations is the "You-can-get-through-this" warble.

The Great-Ruffed Pathologist, an exceptionally shy species, is rarely if ever seen by the traveler. Nevertheless, reports of its whereabouts and news of its activities are much prized. Its eye is particularly sharp and keen, in keeping with the miniscule size of its prey.

The Proud-Breasted Physician's Assistant, another species found in close proximity to the Drab-Suited Surgeon, is far easier to catch than most of the other birds mentioned here. Developing a close familiarity with this bird will, in time, allow you to communicate more closely with the Drab-Suit. (Proud-Breasts can and do learn to read email--a skill still mostly unknown among birds higher up in the pecking order.)

The most commonly seen species of hospital bird, the White-Footed, White-Plumed Nurse, exhibits great authority within its habitat (being subject to intimidation only by the Drab-Suited Surgeon). Although invariably busy tending to its many chicks, the trusty and resourceful White-Foot nonetheless keeps a sharp eye on the traveler and can be counted on to flutter purposefully about, chirping cheerfully and ensuring that all needs are met.

While a common sight, the Lesser Multi-Colored Staff Member should not be overlooked. This species varies greatly in size and plumage, but can be identified by its warm and compassionate eye. Rarely flustered, the Multi-Color harbors enormous capabilities. If a visitor to Cancerland finds the stress of travel too great and breaks into tears while in the vicinity of this bird, the Multi-Color will swoop down and escort the traveler to its nest, where stores of hot tea and Kleenex are found in abundance.

I never intended to become a bird-watcher, but these birds have flown in and out of my life for many years now. They are busily doing their jobs, perhaps not quite aware of my careful surveillance. I wonder about their lives--about how they cope with their peculiar environment, and what it's like to have travelers like me in their midst. Several times, their voices have sounded a shrill wake-up call, which I did not want to hear. At other times, I've thought I spied the black forms of vultures circling high above. But I have also been soothed by cooing of the doves at twilight, the sweet melody of the common sparrow, and the strong voice of my favorite bird, reminding me, despite my predicament, to look and listen, to "fly high and live large."

About the author:

Judy Lieberman lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has written all her life for work, pleasure and the amusement of her friends and family. "This brief tour is offered with apologies to my many medical family members and friends. I am developing an illustrated guidebook, but have run into some HIPPA issues which should be resolved within the coming decade. I would like to thank all of the birds I have encountered in Cancerland--even the raptors--and to note that I continue to chirp and chatter, and have learned, with their assistance, that I am still capable of soaring."