Friday, May 17, 2013

I'm the Guy

"Ultimately, it’s up to you, Mr. Park.” The doctor was looking at me with a cross of expressions – one that was sympathetic and the other of impatience.  As much as I wanted to leave the shrinking four walls of the hospital, leave the pain of the endless missed sticks into my shrinking veins, and of course my shrinking patience, I’m no doctor and the reason I came to the emergency room Thursday morning was in compliance with my discharge orders and there were dire precedents for doing anything less than what I did.

Flash back just 24 hours, one of the more senior hem/onc doctors and I had resolved what had been a rather terse exchange from the previous day. He was of the opinion that I should remain in the hospital until my neutrophil count exceeded 500; the medicine team stood by their opinion that 48 hours without a fever or positive blood cultures while treating with broad-spectrum antibiotics was sufficient. I felt like  I was backed into a corner where my decision would pit one group against the other and when I added the pain of having yet another IV blow out and the nurse missing on reinserting a new IV needle, I was at the edge of tears again. I'm a tough stick right now and I know that, but any way you slice and dice this one, a needle stick just plain hurts. I wouldn’t leave against medical advice, so I told the doctors to work it out and present me with their combined counsel and I would go with it…and the doctor gave me exactly that and still made me choose what to do.
This has become more and more what cancer has done
to me...or for me. I'm responsible...I'm the guy.

I elected to go home.

At home, I had oral antibiotics, antivirals, and antifungals; and I would be clear of coughing orderlies and hallways of sick people; and I would be free from the needle sticks! It was my call. I’m the guy who is ultimately responsible for my own treatment.

On Wednesday, I met with the assistant to the hem/onc who has been overseeing my care since diagnosis. My white count was in the normal zone and she was happy with my recovery.  She pointed out that one of the aptitude tests that indicated my suitability for transplant had to do with waking time out of the bed; 0 with the most, 5 the least. Even at age 50, I’m still among her younger patients and she confirmed that being physically active was a major factor in leaving the hospital as quickly as I have. Having gone through three rounds of chemotherapy, my immune system has reacted with some regularity, so working directly with the physician’s assistant today, we were able to come to agreement on when to start the oral drugs at home and prevent another unplanned visit to the ER. Once again, I’m the guy. I’m responsible. It was because of taking charge that I had preventive drugs at home after my first consolidation round of chemotherapy. I asked about it and within an hour, I had a sack full of big, white horse pills with a foul aftertaste.

It’s far too easy to relinquish the many decisions to someone else who is the expert, but when push comes to shove, it’s my body. I have no desire to go through years of medical training, but I absolutely want to understand what’s happening to me in terms that I can understand. When the doctor in the sterile white coat told me I had leukemia, my mind couldn’t process that pronouncement other than, “this is bad” and it had something to do with white blood cells.  Since then, I’ve read a lot from books people have given or referred to me, looked at a lot of Internet research, and asked a whole lot of questions of nurses, doctors, survivors, and other subject matter experts. Without a doubt, it is the firehose method of learning.  Then again, when it’s happening to you, that otherwise impossibly steep learning curve becomes scalable and even the complicated words become relevant and their pronunciation is now possible.

Now, when a doctor tells me he’s prescribing a medication of any kind for me, I ask the name of it and what it does as well as the side effects. On the same note, I tell the doctors everything. We discuss what’s going on because I’m the guy. I won’t tell them how to do their job, but I’m ultimately responsible for my well-being, so if there's any input, I'm going to make it and I have to be willing to make decisions as well. Part of that responsibility is communicating to others my expectations. The major bone of contention I had with the doctor with whom I had a bit of a row was a lack of communication. I had not been told that my blood counts had fallen to the point I needed to be taking the medications I was prescribed. Had I known, it’s very likely my visit to the ER and all the other unpleasantness that went with it would have been totally unnecessary. I can’t say that with all certainty because I’m not a doctor, but during the previous cycle when I had a call each day after my labs were processed, I knew when to start the antibiotics, so I had many, many medically boring days-a good thing! Today, I received one such call to tell me my blood counts were in the normal range. It took less than a minute and while no catastrophe was averted this time, I was comfortable knowing that I was OK all around. It definitely takes some pro-active involvement and from everything I’ve been told, no one minds the questions.

That’s also why I am bent on physical therapy at least three times a week. I want to be in the best possible shape when it comes time for my transplant. There’s no secret it will be an extremely demanding procedure, so I need to be strong. I’ve been pretty vocal about being upbeat and positive because everything I’ve read and heard tells me that attitude plays a very important role in how well and how quickly our body responds in healing as well. I have to do whatever I can to get strong and stay there, mentally and physically.

This cycle is coming to a close and I go back in for round 3 of consolidation chemotherapy on Monday. I was feeling too good and enjoying the sunshine too much to have this fantasy last too long! This entire round has been rough. It was a painful inpatient stay and I felt like I had some emotionally taxing days in between, notwithstanding this latest visit to the ER and being admitted afterward. It was filled with a lot of life lessons in the meantime, many of which I’d really rather not learn…or re-learn. I have one of those passive-aggressive streaks and I have a way of shutting down when emotions engage. Unfortunately, cancer has been chipping away at that too. What kind of unhealthy coping mechanism am I going to be able to resort to if those are gone? Nothing about this is fair, is it? Ah well, I am the guy and I am responsible, after all. Gotta stand up and face it head on.

Be well, stay strong, and much love to you all.

Music for the day is Stand by Rascal Flatts

You feel like a candle in a hurricane
Just like a picture with a broken frame
Alone and helpless, like you've lost your fight
But you'll be alright, you'll be alright

‘Cause when push comes to shove
You taste what you're made of
You might bend ‘til you break
‘Cause it's all you can take
On your knees you look up
Decide you've had enough
You get mad, you get strong
Wipe your hands, shake it off
Then you stand, then you stand
Life's like a novel with the end ripped out
The edge of a canyon with only one way down
Take what you're given before it's gone
And start holdin' on, keep holdin' on
‘Cause when push comes to shove
You taste what you're made of
You might bend ‘til you break
‘Cause it's all you can take
On your knees you look up
Decide you've had enough
You get mad, you get strong
Wipe your hands, shake it off
Then you stand, yeah, then you stand
Every time you get up
And get back in the race
One more small piece of you
Starts to fall into place, yeah
‘Cause when push comes to shove
You taste what you're made of
You might bend ‘til you break
‘Cause it's all you can take