At the University of Minnesota Bone Marrow Cancer Clinic there is a wide and open gently rising staircase that ascends to the second floor as it follows the pleasant curve of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lobby. I always thought it was so impressive. Especially 2 years ago when I saw it for the first time.
Has it really been two years! Two and a half to be exact.
Here I am again facing those stairs once more and remembering those despair-filled days post-transplant when I could not climb them. I never was so incapacitated. The stairs, as charming as they were, were compromised by the stark, whitish-gray aseptic and sterile look of the rest of the clinic. But they were a good clinic. I just did not want to be there.
Last Saturday, June 20th, marked the two year anniversary of my stem cell transplant for which I received back my harvested stem cells the day after they clobbered me with the nasty nuclear-like chemo bomb called melphalan that burned out the inside of my bones.
Alas, it is time for the 2-year checkup, as if I were a small child about to get a well-baby check. (Although it is more invasive than that and not quite so charming.)
Life gradually returned to normal after the transplant. I went back to work. Walking every day. Biking with my grandkids. I do my best to forget and pretend that it never happened. Ignore, deny, avoid, avert; whatever it takes to not revisit a traumatic time. If it wasn’t for the chemo pill I take every day, I would hardly know or believe my own story.
Influenza B got ahold of me at the end of December, and after 6 weeks of a slow recovery, I had to admit that my immune system was not prepared for the world around me, especially the one I demanded it to be in. I went on a leave of absence that, unfortunately, was extended due to Covid-19. I have been working Infection Control and doing Covid work from home, but it is not the same as seeing patients in the hospital.
Forced to acknowledge the risks I was running, I decided it was time to retire. Terry said, “Wendy, your plane is cleared for landing.” My family and friends applauded. And I cried in my closet. “Yes, Wendy,” I said to myself, “you are on final approach with your beloved work as an Infectious Disease doctor.” Retirement is set for November 15th.
Back at the clinic now, I would be kidding if I told you that there was not some anxiety about coming here. But I approach the stairs and I am reminded that they have contributed beauty to this place which gives some degree of comfort. It is just that bad news echoes off these walls (is this the day, or the month, or the year, that things turn for the worse and the other shoe falls?). The stairs are behind me now as I walk to the sign-in station.
A few weeks ago, I decided to go through our basement collection of books in the house and get rid of some. I figured that I could throw away any of my medical books that were older than 5 years, since knowledge has expanded exponentially, plus the internet is just a keystroke away for the latest.
I saw my “Hematology” book that I bought 25 years ago in medical school, and without too much thinking I tossed it into the garbage. But wait…. I stopped, looked back, and yanked it out. What did it have to say about Multiple Myeloma? There were 2 pages. The key points I found of interest were that life expectancy was only 2 years. Wow, that is right now!! Treatment was blah, blah, blah, and melphalan every 3-4 weeks. WHAT! Unbelievable, I said to myself! Who could survive melphalan that often! No wonder they died. Back in the garbage it went. I poured myself a glass of wine.
After the tests, one gets home to pensively wait for the results, like waiting for your teenager who has the family car and it’s past curfew. Where are they? Am I not getting them because they are bad? Do I have to call for them? When should I consider late late? I don’t want to be annoying. At this point a bad test result weighs heavily because it can change everything about the rest of my life starting now.
The follow up is via tele-video. Oh, shoot, I miss the stairs. But at least I don’t have to listen to the echoes. We start with the Survivorship appointment provider. She asks me if I have any questions about survivorship? I say, “Nope, I just hope to survive.”
Then my provider comes in and says, “No cancer seen in the marrow, nor evidence in the blood.” It is clean. Continued complete remission.
Every year is a gift and not to be taken for granted. They are steps in the inevitable climb up a staircase to a better place. It has been a journey. One of faith and facing the impossible and the incurable. I see that God was always willing to heal me. My challenge was believing that his healing was indeed intended for me.
For this I am grateful.