Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Frequent Flier

In my previous professional life, I used to do quite a bit of traveling. I have a special portfolio of sorts where I keep all my frequent flier and hotel reward program cards. If you’re one of those road warriors, you know the drill when you check-in for a flight or a night’s stay at your chosen hotel chain. They see the gold or platinum colored card and they smile and thank you for your loyalty and give you the fresh baked cookies or other perk that goes along with the program. It’s kinda nice actually, especially if you have to be away from home for days on end.

"Just a spoon full of Starbucks helps the chemo go down....in
 the most unlikely way!" Starbuck's courtesy of my sister, Lynette
(big hugs). We won't be giving up our day jobs to be songwriters
 any time soon, but we do have the tried and true family warped
 sense of humor! My nurse of the day, Carol wearing the latest in
chemo blue fashionwear.
Now, if my calculations are correct, I have 31 days here at the Hotel California, one of the club ‘med’ chains where you can check-out when the doc says it’s OK, but you never really leave.  I keep coming back three times a week when I’m not inpatient and I’m bedding down on night number two for another one of those extended stays. My travel plans have me checking out Sunday morning if all goes well. I don’t know if that will put me over the line for the platinum level rewards yet. If I were to guess, I would say it does since I have the nice room, so they must have sent the special fru-fru card in the mail. No cookies on check-in though, but the room service is pretty nice. Once I finish up in Seattle, I’ll no doubt have the coveted black card! Not too many of us get that one…and honestly, who would want one?

There have been a lot of things I’ve wanted and when I got it, found it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I can remember a quotation on Mrs. Van Rosendaal's (my 9th grade health teacher ... impressed I remember her name?!) chalkboard that pretty much put that sentiment in a nutshell: Far better to receive not what one wanted than to receive what one wanted not.” That’s true on a number of levels. Very clearly, I didn’t want to be a ‘frequent flier,’ so to speak, at the hospital, but there have been a number of silver linings I’ll write about as I am able to list them out. The term, ‘pay it forward’ has been poignant for me as I’m seeing so many of the things I’ve done both in my recent as well as my distant past coming back to surprise me in so many wonderful ways that I continue to be astonished. People’s true colors have shone through – thankfully, most for good, but some have risen far above what I could have conceived. For lack of a better term, I feel truly blessed, especially considering the extreme circumstances.

Now that I’m physically attached to an IV pole that has the yellow chemo bag ensign only a few hours a day, I have been wandering about the hallways and tunnels connecting buildings in the Veteran’s Administration Healthcare complex. I’ve seen a lot of people who are in pretty bad shape and not all of our wounds are visible. Some of our guys are returning from war where the scars are in their minds, some are amputees, some are like me and battling a chronic or other long-term illness, some are traveling great distances to be here and just trying to get that ache taken care of. You can see it on the faces and that of their loved ones. And then there are those you don’t see.

Of the many evenings I spend here, weekends are generally when the patients who need a little extra attention or are en route to another facility show up in the acute care ward where I am. My first weekend as an inpatient was in a semi-private room and my roommate was an older gentleman who had broken his hip and was suffering dementia. Every single exhaled breath was a moan. I didn’t sleep well that night. I came back Monday for aggressive chemotherapy and that first weekend brought another veteran suffering dementia who didn’t have the presence of mind to use the nurse call, but rather shouted for help. Ear plugs were required for sleep that night. Again, last night, my next-door neighbor wasn’t suffering from dementia, but he could out-curse any sailor I ever met. I had heard him shouting for a nurse earlier in the day, but about 11:30 pm, he was at it again and even though my door was closed, he was shouting loud enough for me to make out every word, every epithet, and every threat. My naval officer training was pushing its way up and after about 30 minutes of his tirade, I was ready to walk next door and find out who thought he was the hospital’s most important patient, but about midnight, it finally quieted down.

Today, it has been mercifully quiet.  I can only assume that he has been given the extra milligram of the pain medication he had been demanding…or a lovely placebo. That, of course, makes me wonder truly what it was that he wanted: was he, like so many veterans here, alone and in severe need of someone to give some attention or was there some legitimate pain that needed relief? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Because so many people on staff know me by name now, it’s not uncommon for them to stop by and chat me up. One of the administrators who takes the brunt of people like the man who threw the temper tantrum yesterday has much more patience that I do with that kind of behavior (obviously the person for the job!) talked to me a bit today and put the event into perspective without going into any details. It drove the point home that this particular Club Med is for healing, even if sleep isn’t a high priority! It drove home just how compassionate and longsuffering the staff is. That’s something I knew already, but the people that are hard to understand, hard to communicate with, or hard to placate prove that there’s an unwritten part of the job description for the nurses and med techs that transcends mere compassion and extends to a kind of love for one’s fellow man that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, and I’m grateful for it.

This isn’t something I asked for as a frequent flier, but it took being one to really grasp it both in the big picture and in its many nuances. It’s more than knowing someone’s name; it took sharing the vision of hope in a child; it took mingled tears of losing a patient, of surviving one’s own cancer, of the promise of retiring in good health; it took sharing a smile, of our mutual humanity. I can’t say that these difficult patients will understand the kind of commitment that the people who work in health care have for their patients and their career, but you can be assured it’s completely devoid of politics and completely full of the qualities that allow for healing and for a thriving and healthy community.

Today’s music is a blast from the past, but the lyrics seem to be both a tribute to my medical professionals here as well as a reminder to myself.  Argent’s Hold Your Head Up, originally released as a single in 1972.

And if it's bad
Don't let it get you down
You can take it
And if it hurts
Don't let them see you cry
You can take it

And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes
On you moving
And if they shout
Don't let them change a thing
What you're doing