Tomorrow I will visit Hopkins’ main hospital, the city within the city, and check in for my “radiation simulation.” I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like something out of Star Trek. Because of this, I will not wear a red shirt to this appointment.
I go to the main hospital only for certain procedures and appointments. Most of the time I frequent Hopkins’ convenient suburban complex, Greenspring Station. Greenspring is closer to my house, and lacks the obstacle course of the downtown location.
Obstacle course highlights include: navigating downtown traffic, paying for parking, walking past armed guards through the worst neighborhood in Baltimore, and trying to pinpoint your destination in a literal maze of buildings connected by Escher-esque tunnels and walkways. Some rooms are futuristic and modern, with monochromatic color schemes and floor-to-ceiling windows. Other spaces, like the chemo waiting room, are tiny, windowless, overcrowded and reveal the inner-city hospital that lies one scratch below the lacquered surface of The Greatest Hospital On Earth. Turn down one corridor, and you start singing Sinatra: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” Turn down another, and you remember you are a number in a factory, and you will be waiting in line so long you might get forgotten completely.
This happened to me once at Hopkins. I was sitting in the treatment room in a gown, waiting to meet the oncologist, when my phone rang. It was my oncologist’s office, asking why I’d missed my appointment.
“I’m HERE, you dolts!” I told them. Maybe I didn’t say dolts out loud. I hope I didn’t, but I was pretty stressed that day. “I’ve been sitting in my underwear for an hour and you’ve lost me?!”
They asked: “What room number are you in?” Were they kidding me? Not at all.
“Do these rooms have numbers? I can’t go into the hall with my gown open in the front to find out! Come find me!” Yes, I had just proposed a game of hide and seek with the medical staff.
They were good. They found me in under five minutes. I considered hiding behind the door when they came into the room. I wouldn’t have fit into the drawers under the bed.
This is the dual nature of Johns Hopkins Hospital: an institution able to perform miracles, yet unable to find their own patients in their overbuilt, overcrowded buildings. The feelings it evokes mirrors – in a very primitive way — the dual feelings I have for my medical practitioners. It’s natural to hero-worship the person saving your life, and I do. It’s also natural to hate the person who is torturing you, and I do that sometimes as well. When these primal responses move up the brain stem to be distilled through the cerebral cortex , the resulting outlook resembles … well, the Greenspring campus.
Sitting in a bland, suburban shopping-center complex, Greenspring is more than physically removed from the pulsing, teeming beast of the downtown hospital. it’s psychologically removed as well. Downtown, I’m walking right into the mouth of my disease. It’s big, confusing, horrible, and to get out I have to find my own way. At Greenspring, there is very little evidence anything serious is happening. I’m just there running errands when I go to chemo, ticking items off my list. It’s psychologically easier.
My last procedure downtown was my blood transfusion. My dad accompanied me, and the downtown complex unnerved him too. First, there was the coffee situation. He had to take three separate sets of elevators and walk half a mile to find the coffee shop nearest to the cancer building.
“How do you survive?” he asked my nurse. She laughed as she hung the first bag of recently defrosted transfusion blood. “We have our secret stash. Don’t tell.”
Dad, ever a bit squeamish, grimaced at the blood. “If your incisors start to grow,” he told me as he warily watched the thick, red drops plop out of the bag into the infusion tube, “Just give me a head start.”
I don’t know if radiation will be disconcerting to experience or watch. In fact, I don’t know what to expect at all from radiation, and that’s quite intentional. With my years of experience as a professional cancer patient, I have picked up on a few tidbits, such as the fact that all cancer treatments are unnerving and weird and just plain wrong-looking. All have provoked me to say, at one time or another: “You’re going to put [blank] into my [blank]? Please tell me you’re joking.” (They never were! Not even once.)
I expect nothing less from radiation. And for some reason I picture myself wearing a tin foil hat, but I know that can’t be right.
The first question they will ask will be: “Are you feeling better from chemo?” I’m considering saying no. If I say no, do I get to postpone radiation? Probably not, so sure, I’ll play along. I feel fine. My Old Faithful nosebleeds have stopped their hourly eruption, my mouth is no longer constantly at Def Con 5 for mouth sores. That’s nice. I could complain about lingering nausea, tiredness, my fingernails and their seemingly tireless mission to separate themselves from my nail beds. But that seems like throwing rocks at a retreating bully. The poison is gone now; it’s over. A few body parts have not gotten the memo yet, but they will, obviously.
Now what? I don’t know, but I know “it” will happen to me every day for six weeks and “it” will involve biohazards. I remember my PET scan, during which radioactive sugar was shot into my veins with a lead plunger. I had to wait in a room surrounded by biohazard signs. I remember thinking: why are they putting me in a room with a biohazard …. Oh. I am the biohazard.
So I will be the biohazard for 30 doctor’s appointments. That’s a lot of Words With Friends I’ll be playing on my laptop. I have close to 30 games going, incidentally, and that’s probably what will be engaging my attention while they’re positioning the [blank] in my [blank] and I’m wearing my tin foil hat.
They’d better keep track of me: it’s one thing to play hide and seek with a gowned cancer patient, quite another if you’ve made her radioactive.