Saturday, November 22, 2008

We are all children of God in the chemo room

I have had a tough week, which is why I haven't written since Monday. I struggle with how much to share on my blog, because I value my family's privacy. So I will try to tell my story without intruding on their lives too much.

Today's story is about fear. Fear is an interesting thing. Our government has utilized fear as the cornerstone of its leadership style for the past eight years, and the financial crisis isn't helping us get out of this mode of existence. But it's funny that much of what we fear is over what might happen. Fear expands into emotion and drama in our minds. We have ideas that make us fearful even if we never test them against reality.

Yesterday my fears and my reality came together in an unusual circumstance.

Here are some of the things I am afraid of: sickness, cancer, aging, death, violence, criminals.

Here is how I spent my day yesterday: accompanying my Mom to her chemotherapy infusion in a small hospital room that she shared with two convicts from the state prison, and four armed guards.

UNC is a state-of-the-art hospital, and it's also a state hospital, so sick prisoners receive treatment there. It was one of the strangest assemblies of people I've ever been in. But it actually wasn't scary.

My Mom was there because her lymphoma came out of remission. The prisoners were getting chemotherapy too. I tried not to think about what their crimes might have been. One prisoner was a young white man, one was an older white woman. The chemo room is a great leveler. I might have been afraid of the man if I had run into him on the street, but even though he looked like a strong guy, no one is strong at the moment that they are getting those powerful drugs pumped into their veins.

The four prison guards were black, three women and one man. They were friendly and spent their time reading the newspaper and clipping coupons from the Thanksgiving circulars. Two guards had guns and wore bulletproof vests.

My Mom and I were in our corner, with just enough room that we weren't bumping into anyone else.

One nurse took care of all three patients (and possibly others in another room). She flew in and out like a smart, attentive hummingbird, hovering, changing bags of drugs, responding to beeps on the IV machines, taking blood pressures.

Volunteers came in and offered juice, DVD players, and any small comfort they could.

I felt like a fly on the wall--present for my Mom but an observer of all the rest. People weren't silent but thankfully no one was too chatty. We didn't share personal stories in any way shape or form. We just existed in this space together.

So this was a room where the worst had already happened. People had committed crimes and been put in jail. People already had cancer and were praying that the treatment would work. Forget abstract fears--this was life.

But in that moment at least you could feel that you were in good hands. The nurses and volunteers at UNC are incredibly caring. The professional staff is busy but attentive. And I was impressed that the comfort volunteers treated the prisoner-patients just as kindly as anyone else.

I've been dealing with lots of extended family drama and the nurses' example inspired me, and served as a powerful example of how to act. Don't be ruled by fears of what might happen down the road--the chemo might not work--but focus on the tasks at hand. What can we do to make people feel better right now, as we also deliver treatment that can solve the root of the problem? The nurses are caring, professional, competent, and they also have good boundaries. They employ a bit of detachment that is necessary so as not to get drawn too deeply into the human drama continuously unfolding in front of their eyes. They do their job in a caring way, keeping their attention focused on their role and what they can do.

It reminds me of what Zen teacher Cheri Huber says about acceptance, "First we accept, then we get to work." The feeling I get when we go to the chemo center is one of hope but no promises. Everyone who is there is at a tough starting point. Anyone can end up in that treatment chair, which should be made available to all who need it.

The experience with the prisoners was strange and illuminating. Cancer is scary but I wasn't scared by the people in the room. I could handle being there. Even in the face of the undeniable power differential of armed guards and cuffed prisoners, because of the humane way everyone was treating one another, it truly felt like everyone was a child of God in the chemo room.

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Blogger Heidi O said...

Great post. I never sat in the room while my mom received her treatments but I do know that room is the great equalizer. Regardless of your station in life you are all there for the same reason.
Did you ask your mom how she felt about the nurses? I would be curious if her reaction was the same. There was a recent show on Oprah about a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke. She lived off emotion and the nurses who touched her in some way left her with positive feelings, the ones who just went about their job not directing any real attention her way left her with negative feelings. It was very elemental which would not necessarily be the same way for your mom but I would be curious if she had different or similar observations.

11:34 AM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hi Heidi, Thanks for your comment and I'll ask my Mom how she feels about the nurses. In other hospitals I've seen nurses who do not act as caring--especially when the staff is stretched too thin.

At UNC everyone I have encountered (through many different interactions) has always had a helpful, kind manner. The particular nurse who worked with my Mom yesterday had a lovely demeanor that served as a great example for me!

12:02 PM  
Blogger Magpie said...

I don't believe in a god, but I do believe that we are all the same in the face of something like that. Very moving piece.

I've sat there in that room with my mother, but her hospital's chemo suite has everyone in their own private cubicle - it's somehow not as humanizing.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Tina BS said...

What an incredible experience. It sounds like the nurses, without realizing it, really rejuvenated you. They know they have an affect on people, but I often wonder if they realize how much. I do believe it takes a special person to work in the chemo room. I think it is a delicate balance to provide hope, but carefully not promise.

My best to you and your family. I hope you can find time to take care of you so that you can remain filled for your mom.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry for your mother and for you, and encourage you to sustain the kind of even and open awareness that you have brought to this post. The truth is, fear is always abstract, and real life, even when it embodies our worst fear, can be handled in this way. I'm sure your mother appreciates having your steady presence. It is really the most precious and necessary gift: the quiet attention we give to one another in life's pressing hour. It is the least we can do, and the most we can do.

I will pray for her.

7:15 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hi Maggie, Tina and Karen, It's good to hear from you. The ironic thing that I didn't write in my post is that up to the moment I drove to the chemo treatment with my Mom, I was really losing my shit about a separate family drama. I was angry and feeling really sorry for myself for having to shoulder even more responsibilities. I decided that these emotions really needed to go somewhere, so I fully gave in to my pity party, but just for one day.

Driving to the hospital that morning I decided it would be less heartbreaking and less crazy-making to focus on solutions and reality rather than all the extra things that could go wrong. (It's one thing to focus on the practicalities of what could go wrong, but another thing altogether to viscerally feel that you are already living in a messed up future that hasn't even happened yet.)

So when I entered the chemo waiting room I was in dire need of inner peace. And I managed to find it, thankfully. It was a strange experience but it came at the right time.

My Mom is a dear, dear person. Such a trouper in the face of some big challenges. The good news is that she is really living life normally on a day to day basis when she's not getting treatment.

I was falling to pieces; she was holding steady. Fortunately, when I hit rock bottom in response to all the crises, I decided it was time to bounce.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Amy@UWM said...

Interesting life lesson. I've spent lots of time in the chemo room myself battling my own lymphoma. It is scary -- prisoners or not. Wishing the best for your mom.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Zeldman said...

You, your mother and your whole family are in my prayers. I know that it's hard on everyone in this difficult time.

5:47 AM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Thank you everyone, for your kind thoughts and prayers. The type of lymphoma my Mom has cannot be cured, but it can often be managed over many years. There are amazing drugs out there now--many different treatment options for lymphoma and leukemia (which, it turns out, are sort of the same thing).

Amy@UWM, we send you our best wishes for your treatment as well.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Di said...

I was in the chemo room with one of my best friends last week and have spent several days with her since, helping her sort through medicine, handing her a Zofran when the nausea seized her, etc.

It's scary. But if you want to join us in laughing cancer away, you might want to take a look at Kim's CaringBridge site:

BTW, CaringBridge is a GREAT tool when you are trying to keep a whole bunch of family and friends updated.

I write her updates for her. The people who work in the chemo place she goes to just blow me away. Kind, helpful, knowledgeable and wanting to make her as comfortable as possible.

2:33 PM  

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