Friday, June 14, 2013

The Fellowship of Suffering

My last month on active duty in the US Navy was a very quiet uneventful one…except the night I decided to find something different to do and on one cold January evening the very day before I was due to be discharged, I decided to go ice skating. The rink was practically empty and I enjoyed myself. I’m not an accomplished skater – I’m merely passable, capable of holding my own without looking too much like the one waving his arms about to maintain some sort of balance. Well, that wonderful evening, I was standing near the entrance to the rink when the skates went out from underneath me and I was flat on my back. I would find out that the fall had actually broken my leg, albeit a rather minor break. Because the fracture was on the outside, I was somehow able to walk on the leg, leading me to believe it was just a sprained ankle. You can imagine the chagrined look on the corpsmen’s faces when they realized they had me walking on a broken leg. Suffice it to say, they got me off my feet in no time and wanted to put me in a cast. Driving a manual transmission car with my toes was a challenge, but I was determined!

I got over the novelty of the cast pretty quickly and was none too disappointed when the day came to get it removed. I remember sitting in a waiting room with a collection of other walking wounded people awaiting their own removal of multi-colored casts. The waiting room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. The silence was broken by a good ol’ boy from Tennessee whom we would all find out had in his young life, sported casts on many places on his rather large frame.

“Boy, but don’ it itch!”

We all let out variations of bemused sighs, all nodding in agreement. Everyone began sharing how long they had worn their cast and how they managed to get injured. The place practically turned into a religious service, everyone bearing testimony on their suffering. Can I get an ‘amen,’ brother? When I lived in Minnesota, there was a common suffering of the intensely cold winters. If it got above 0° any time in the month of January, it was cause for celebration and when it crested 15°, I, no kidding, saw shorts. When you live in Minnesota, you revel in complaining about the weather. It’s just what you do.  Once I put the frigid temperatures behind me in living in Southern California, I did more than store my lovely Norwegian sweaters with cedar blocks in plastic boxes under my bed never to be worn in the eternally warm weather. Arriving in November, I was greeted by shivering Californians wearing fur-lined parkas in the ‘new’ frigid: 50°(yes, really)! In SoCal, the new fellowship of suffering was the hellish traffic. Just as in Minnesota, we all acknowledged the extreme weather, in SoCal, we all acknowledged the traffic and once again, we reveled in how bad it was. It required no explanation, perhaps just how much time we spent in it. Now that I’ve arrived in Utah, it doesn’t get really all that cold and the traffic can’t compare to Southern California, I laugh out loud at anyone who complains at either!
My new fellowship of suffering seems to come rather often now with other people who are suffering from chronic illnesses and most especially with other cancer survivors. I spend quite a lot of time at the VA Hospital getting routine blood draws and because I’m there so much, staffs in many places throughout the hospital know me by name. I still have my PICC line in, so I don’t get stuck with a needle for my lab tests this round – I know I heard an “amen” from the back of the room – so I go to the Ambulatory Medicine Unit (AMU). The AMU has a number of rooms with a few recliners and IV poles. People who get outpatient chemotherapy, blood products, or infusions for other chronic conditions can pull up to the pump, get serviced (oil changed, windshield squeegeed, and a fragrance of their choice all complimentary of course) and be on their way. For those of us with PICC lines or ports, it happens a bit faster.  It’s as easy as unscrewing a cap and connecting the IV. No muss, no fuss, no pain – we all win…and we get an extra punch on our frequent customer card along with a cup of coffee and a packet of graham crackers. What a deal!

This morning, the nurse took all of about 2 minutes to come in and take a blood sample from my PICC line and the rest of our time, we spent just chatting. She flushed out my PICC line and it struck me that it was not fair that I gave blood and she just gave me water…isn’t blood thicker than water? Yes it is, but that’s the arrangement. So, she took my test tube sample off with a smile (and left no graham crackers) for the lab to run their chemistry and count and while I was waiting for the results, I got two roommates. And just like the good ol’ boy from Tennessee, one of us started talking and we all just laughed through our own shared suffering of sorts. We were all veterans and had long-term conditions – one had Parkinson’s and the other had rheumatoid arthritis. My numbers came back really good and I left with new friends and a bit of a spring in my step.
The nurse "flushing" my PICC line with a saline solution.
I do this at home every morning, but she's getting ready to
draw blood and then change the dressing around where
the actual catheter enters my the vein in my arm. You can see
the greenish donut where the purple line disappears. This
line goes into the vein and it feeds through my chest to just
above my heart. Pretty cool, huh? Well, it keeps me from
getting needles in me on a regular basis!
I’ve found that as much as I don’t ever want cancer or illness to be the first thing about me, there are times I need to be able to talk to people who know what I’m going through. It’s far easier to talk with two complete strangers about what I’m working through than my loved ones. I think that’s mostly due to the fact that I just don’t want the relationship to change. I don’t want them to treat me differently. I want and need that stability that regardless of the awful things that I’m walking through, for the important people to be there, to be unchanged is critical.  My life, my world may be shaking underneath, but the ones who are my foundation stand in front of me, holding me steady as my feet wobble from the quake. I can’t make them understand what it is that makes me unsteady the same way they can relate to heavy traffic or nasty weather…and I guess the truth is, I wouldn’t want anyone with whom I’m depending on to have to empathize fully because I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I am.
That said, I really do want to be able to be there for others who find themselves in the dark with a new cancer diagnosis and unaware of what to do next. I’m not a medical expert and I don’t want to be a source in that department, but I know those who have meant the most to me have given me the simplest of human needs – a simple touch by holding my hand when I hurt, hugged me when I felt unattractive as my hair thinned and fell out, smiled at and with me or told me jokes when I just wanted to cry, brought me a cup of real coffee when the chemo made breakfast smell putrid…and so on. Every little message of love and support pushed me one day closer to healing and whatever I can do along the way and after the only thing left from my cancer experience is PICC line scars, then that’s what I do.

That’s what the fellowship of suffering grants – authentic empathy and a responsibility to ease other’s pain. It’s not a group I had endeavored to join, but as I’m wearing the accoutrement of its membership and with so much pain around me, it feels right to smile and laugh with those who hurt.  Funny thing happens in that process – I make new friends…and I find myself feeling better.

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

Today’s music – a classic from Bill Withers in 1973: Lean on Me

Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise

We know that there's
Always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on

For it won't be long
Till I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on
Please swallow your pride
If I have things
You need to borrow

For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you won't let show


You just call on me brother
When you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on

I just might have a problem
That you'll understand
We all need somebody to lean on

 
Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on

For it won't be long
Till I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

You just call on me brother
When you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem
That you'll understand
We all need somebody to lean on

If there is a load
You have to bear
That you can't carry

I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me





Call me
If you need a friend
(Call me)