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Rollercoaster Journeys

The misadventures of a young widow.

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In the Beginning

Hot Sperm Dr.


When you live with cancer, the range of issues you have to deal with far surpasses most other life circumstances, and you find yourself stuck in conversations that span from scary to absurdly uncomfortable. The night before my husband was to start his first round of induction chemotherapy to treat his recently diagnosed leukemia, we found ourselves in the midst of one of the latter. Of course they had to find the hottest doctor in all of MCV to discuss our future reproductive options with Chris and I!

It all started when a clinician came in to go through all the final paperwork with us before his chemo could begin. She asked us to sign a document acknowledging that we understood the risks of conceiving while undergoing cancer treatment. She explained that chemotherapy and radiation cause mutations within the sex cells, leading to disruptions in fetal development and a whole host of birth defects. This wasn’t necessarily a permanent issue, but while he was undergoing treatment and for a period of time after, we had to put any plans of conceiving on the back burner. What she didn’t know was that this was a non-issue for us.

Chris politely declined to sign the document, trying to tactfully explain that pregnancy was not in our future, immediate or otherwise, without coming right out and saying, “My wife’s infertile.” He acknowledged the fact that chemo and/or radiation plus unprotected sex equaled a C.H.U.D. baby, but there was absolutely no risk of that happening to us. No matter how many times he repeated this, it didn’t seem to sink in. She was sure we were no different from any of the other couples who had said the same thing in the past, but then got pregnant regardless.

I’ve known about my infertility condition since I was 15 and had this exact conversation several times before. As considerate as he was being of handling this without divulging my medical history, this was a first for him and he was getting increasingly frustrated. After several minutes of going back and forth between her insisting he sign the document and he insisting that there was no need, I finally interjected. I was oh-so-eloquent and briefly explained, “This isn’t a problem. I had a hysterectomy over a decade ago.”

The clinician finally broke the awkward silence, “Oh, I see.” She then began a barrage of questions about any future plans we had regading having kids. We had two options: surrogacy (after all, I still had my ovaries), or adoption. Since surrogacy was on the table the clinician insisted we consult with a physician ASAP to discuss cryo-preservation of Chris’s sperm, just in case. We weren’t all that concerned with the future of our reproductive options…we were more concerned with the future of his mortality.

I think out of mere desperation to get this woman to shut up already, we agreed to talk with the attending physician about this issue. An hour later, a doctor in his early to mid-thirties came into our room whose looks rivaled those of Dr. McDreamy off of Grey’s Anatomy. All I could think was, “Sweet Buddha, don’t let him be the sperm doctor!” Sure enough, he was.

What followed was the most awkward conversation I have ever had in my life. Hot Sperm Doc proceeded to tell us that there were no consistent statistics on the effects of chemotherapy on male fertility. Some men experience a complete loss of fertility; others experience difficulty and need medical intervention, while some experience absolutely no problems conceiving naturally. He couldn’t give us any indication as to which category Chris would fall into. Then he proceeded to tell us that the hospital has arrangements with fertility clinics in the Richmond area, and we could easily have Chris’s sperm collected and cryo-preserved at any one of these facilities…for a monthly storage fee averaging about $225. He stressed how important it was that we decide as soon as possible so that the sample could be collected and his chemotherapy schedule readjusted. It was at this point that he excused himself to give us some time alone to discuss our options.

It took us all of 15 minutes to decide that we wanted to take our chances and move ahead with the chemotherapy as soon as possible. The ultimate decision ended up in my lap because Chris just couldn’t bring himself to make the call given my fertility issues. As chivalrous as that was, the last thing I was worried about was my own infertility and how his cancer was going to impact our chances of having future children. At that point, my only concern was just having a future with him period…end of conversation!

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Red Flags vs. Denial


In the weeks leading up to Chris’s diagnosis, the fact that he became as ill as he did was highly unusual. He hadn’t caught more than a cold since I met him, and hadn’t had the need to see a doctor in over 10 years. Between the two of us, Chris definitely came from “heartier stock,” while I was just grateful to have a pain-free day. The lifeguard definitely wasn’t on duty when I was swimming around in the health end of the gene pool. I was born with a rare congenital disorder, which caused numerous medical issues during my adolescent and adult years. On top of that, being a teacher meant that I came down with every cold, flu, or infection my germ-infested, but lovable students brought to school. I got sick more often and always took longer to recover than him.

At the beginning of October 2008, I came down with some kind of funk that I undoubtedly picked up from one of my kids at work. Chris started getting sick just as I was starting to feel human again. I apologized for passing off whatever crap I had to him. This wasn’t the first time, nor would it probably be the last, so he just laughed it off.

Not too long after that, it wasn’t as jokingly routine anymore. I started to get worried, really worried, but tried to convince both of us that he would kick this bug in no time (he later confessed to me that he was really worried too, and did exactly what I did). After two weeks of having flu-like symptoms, I suggested he take a ride down to Urgent Care. It was a Wednesday and our anniversary (first date, not wedding) was that coming weekend, on Halloween. I figured if he had strep throat, then he could get started on a cycle of antibiotics ASAP and have a shot at enjoying the plans we made for the weekend. He was sent home that day with scripts for penicillin and hydrocodone to treat what appeared to be a nasty pharyngeal infection.

As expected, he seemed to get a little better over the next few days and I thought he’d be back at 100% well before his 14-day antibiotic cycle ended. Even though he was feeling a little better, his energy level was still in the toilet so we postponed our plans, but decided to at least toast our anniversary. I made him a double Three Olive Kamikaze, his favorite. Chris and I were seasoned veterans when it came to drinking socially and we made the perfect duo when we went out. Throughout our entire relationship we rarely drank at home, but went out with varying frequency (depending on the time of year and ) to a handful of places in town, usually accompanied by an assortment of friends. Given our lubricated history, I figured he could handle the drink I mixed for him with no problem.

Two things happened that night that stood out in my mind; red flags that I tried to deny out of fear. We talked about something arbitrary while we had our drinks standing around the dumping ground for our laundry, known by name for a different function as the free-standing bar. Given the convenient location, he took his sweatshirt off and the t-shirt underneath came along for in front for the ride. It was the first time in a few days that I had seen him without a shirt on and he looked damn good! Don’t get me wrong, he was always an attractive dude, even with the 30 pounds of comfort-weight he had gained since we met several years ago. Overnight, it seemed, his Buddha-belly had shrunk considerably. I remember warning bells going off in my head, but I was able to push those back as I was simultaneously eyeing him with no less shame than a group of bros watching the stripper at a bachelor party.

Shortly after ogling my husband’s bare torso, I noticed he was becoming increasingly chatty and chipper. Now, one of the things I loved about Chris as my drinking partner was the type of drunk he was, the happy, sociable kind. The only drawback was that at 230ish pounds on a muscular frame, it took far more than a double shooter to get him buzzed, which accounted for his half of our healthy bar tabs. It didn’t take too long to realize that after one drink, he didn’t have just a good buzz, he was shitfaced! For the second time that night, warning bells were going off in my head, but yet again, I was able to block them out by my excitement over his heightened mood. He had been feeling like crap for over two weeks and I hated seeing him like that. He was feeling no pain and didn’t have a care in the world, and that helped ease my worries, while conflicting with the nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right.

A few more days passed, during which time his recovery seemed to plateau and then his symptoms became worse than they had been prior to starting the antibiotics. That Thursday, a week and a day after he went to the doctor, I decided to come home from work and take a nap before heading to my class later that evening. This meant backtracking 25 minutes away from campus, just to turn around and add that time onto my long commute to class during rush-hour traffic. Apparently that day, for whatever reason, naptime was worth the sacrifice.

Shortly after I got back to the house, Chris came home from work. He looked like death; his skin was grey and it took an enormous amount of effort to take his jacket off (and it wasn’t even zipped up). I told him he needed to go back to Urgent Care and tell the doctor that since the penicillin didn’t seem to be effective, he needed to try another course of treatment. He complained of being too tired to go through the ordeal of getting checked out by the doctor. I pointed out that clearly, that was not a good sign and in fact, was an excellent rationale for expending the energy. I usually wasn’t insistent about anything he needed unless it was REALLY important. He was a big boy and I wasn’t his mom; furthermore, I certainly wasn’t the type to nag someone, but that day, I became the nagging wife. He didn’t put up too of an argument and agreed to go once he had a chance to lay down and take a nap. Since that was my original plan, I told him I was laying down too, but as soon as I got up, he had to head to the doctor. He agreed pitifully before crashing out on the couch…with his shoes still on.

I was up about an hour later and woke him up. He got up, shrugged into his jacket, and walked out the door. Little did either of us know, it would be six weeks before he stepped foot back in our house.

The Wrap


The thing I remember being the most resentful about after Thursday, November 6, 2008 was the fact that I didn’t get to finish my chicken wrap that night! That’s right, out of all the events that transpired on the night Chris was diagnosed with leukemia, the one that stands out is not being able to eat my entire King Caesar wrap from Tropical Smoothie! Is that too much to ask before having my life shoved into a blender?

It all started when the phone rang while I was eating. After getting home from a quick trip to grab dinner, I had settled on the couch to watch Scrubs while I ate. I had taken maybe three bites when I heard the familiar techno ring attached to Chris’s number. I scrambled to get the plate out of my lap gracefully, while simultaneously digging through my bag for the phone before it went to voicemail. Swallowing, I flipped my phone open and hit SEND. “Hey babe, what’s up?”

“I need you to pick me up from Urgent Care and take me to the ER…now,” he replied calmly.

“OK, I’ll be there in a few.” Later, I remember thinking that for a phone call which led to the most devastating event of our lives, the conversation was fairly anti-climactic.

It wasn’t a shocker that he was at Urgent Care in the first place; I was the one who insisted he go BACK to Urgent Care just a few hours earlier.  Shortly after leaving the house he had called just as I was trying to get myself out the door in time to make it through traffic to my seven o’clock class.  Apparently there was some mix-up between the clinic and his insurance company. He tried explaining what was going on but was too exhausted and frustrated, and all I got was that the insurance company had denied coverage and the clinic was refusing to see him. He had been there over a week before for what they diagnosed as a throat infection and this hadn’t been an issue, so I knew something was up. He had never dealt with insurance issues before and was so tired, he just wanted to come home until we could straighten it out.

Thinking that he just needed a different course of antibiotics, as he had been on penicillin for over a week and was worse than before, I knew if he came home he wouldn’t feel like going back out to the clinic that night.  I told him to stay put while I called the insurance company. After 20 minutes of answering questions via pushing “1” on my phone, I finally got to a real person. Looking at his account, it seemed that my charming, laid-back (albeit slightly absent-minded) husband had forgotten to pay his premium the week before, so his coverage was in the process of being cancelled. I really wasn’t all that shocked to hear this.

I was able to make a payment over the phone; however, it wouldn’t post to his account for 48 hours. Son of a bitch! Thankfully, the woman on the other end of the phone was really cool; either that or she really wanted me to shut up after my frustrated “I really don’t want my husband to die today!”  She offered to call the clinic so he could be seen that night. I gratefully thanked this saint of a customer service agent, happy that he was going to be checked out by another doctor, and I hadn’t missed my class for what would have amounted to a lot of energy and no outcome.

I got to the urgent care clinic within ten minutes of hanging up from our latest phone call that evening, I checked in with reception and had a seat in the waiting room. I don’t think my ass was in that chair long enough for the support braces to register my weight before a nurse came and motioned for me to follow her. We walked along the corridor maze to the back corner of the building, stopping at an exam room that was the size of my refrigerator. Just inside the door, there were three nurses standing together murmuring over paperwork on a clipboard with grave intensity. Behind them in the corner, another nurse was talking to my husband who, while still looking like he’d been hit by a Mack truck, was fully-dressed and standing up under his own power. Chris introduced me as his wife and one of the nurses in the huddle turned around and said, “Go straight to the ER at Sentara; they’re expecting you. Do NOT stop anywhere, not your house, a gas station, or anywhere else. Go directly to the hospital.”

“Oh…okay,” I replied oh-so-eloquently. Her delivery caught me a little off-guard, causing mild confusion by the fact that no explanation was offered up as to the reason for, nor expediency of, our venture to the hospital. Nevertheless, I didn’t ask any questions figuring that since Chris was conscious, alert, and mobile he’d fill me in sooner or later.

As we walked down the hall and through the waiting room, Chris’s body language made it clear that he wanted desperately to get the hell out of that building.  He had grabbed my hand as soon as we walked out of the exam room, practically dragging me through the waiting room. Once we got through the doors and hit pavement, my curiosity got the best of me. “What’s up, dude?”

He was barely able to get the words, “The doctor thinks I have leukemia,” before finally breaking down after what have must have been an eternity of holding it together in front of the clinic staff.  Given that he still had a vice-grip on my hand, my first response was to squeeze his hand reassuringly and say matter-of-factly, “Well damn…okay, we can deal with this.”

Once we got in the car, he explained that the doctor had done a CBC (complete blood count) and the results were typical of that of a patient with leukemia. Regardless of the fact that he was hysterical, he tried to find some amount of humor by telling me the doctor followed up his grave diagnosis with, “I really hope I’m wrong and in three weeks you’ll come back for a follow-up and call me an asshole for scaring the crap out of you.”

He lit a cigarette, remarking that he might as well smoke now since it might be the last chance he’d have for a while (and he was definitely right on that). I tried to calm him down, which was really just my way of keeping me from falling apart too, by reminding him that the ER needed to conduct further testing to confirm or refute the possibility of leukemia.  Until then, we just needed to try and chill out. I tried to be sensible about the whole thing, reminding him that it wasn’t a definite diagnosis but if he did in fact have leukemia, we would deal with it together as a team, just like we did everything else.

Before embarking on the “FFFFUUUCCCKKK!!! My husband has cancer!” freak-out, we needed more information and I was able to hold myself together relatively well by focusing on that. I didn’t want to worry anyone, or admit the possibly impending doom out loud, so I didn’t make any phone calls as I sat in the ER waiting room while he checked himself in. I did send a short text to a friend of mine who I taught English with at the middle school I worked at as a special education teacher. Paige and I had known each other for years, but weren’t extremely close and just happened to be teaching together out of sheer coincidence. In the three months we had been working together, we went out for drinks after work a few times a month and had gotten together for dinner once with our respectively nerdy husbands (who happened to hit it off…imagine that?). I don’t know why she was the one I chose to let know what was going on. I think I really needed to tell someone just in case his diagnosis was true so there was one person who wouldn’t be caught completely off-guard if/when we had to break the news.  Paige was the most logical choice in this respect because at least I could pretend I was telling her as a “heads-up” in case I had to miss work the next day. Her reply was pretty short and to-the-point and I told her I’d get back to her once we knew more. Okay, someone on the outside knew…I could go back to keeping my shit together.

From the moment he broke the news on me in the clinic’s parking lot, I realized this – Chris was the one who had just been told that he may have a disease that could potentially kill him in a relatively short period of time, and dealing with your own mortality is a pretty heavy thing. I’ve been down that road and knew that the only thing I could do was to stay rational so that he could process the intense possibility of having a life-threatening illness in whatever way his brain needed to. In other words, he had dibs on flipping out at the moment so I had to be the cool, calm, collected one.

Once we got checked into the ER in what became the shortest admin-time I’ve ever experienced, the doctor ran another CBC, which confirmed the first doctor’s suspicions. After he dropped the leukemia bomb on us, we were given a little bit of time alone together for our new reality to sink in. Chris began crying and going on about all the time he had wasted in his life and what he should’ve done differently. I didn’t necessarily think this was the most productive thing for him to do but he obviously needed to get it out.  I let him wallow for a little while before giving in to my inner voice and finally telling him to shut up – thinking like that was not going to help him battle this at all. I actually got kind of tough with him, which may seem like a bitchy thing to do to a dude who just found out he had cancer…and it kind of was.

“Stop! I’m not going to sit here and listen to you feel sorry for yourself about all the things you haven’t done with your life. If you need to use this as motivation for what you’re going to do in the future, that’s the best way to channel this energy. I will completely support you in any and every way to help you kick this cancer’s ass, BUT I can’t sit here and support or indulge your personal pity party. YES, you have cancer and YES, it sucks big time! You cannot change anything that you did, or didn’t do in the past, so this conversation is pointless. So what’s it gonna be, a solo pity party or tackling this head-on as Team Venture (his nickname for us)?”

He cracked a smile and gave me a HUGE hug. I didn’t feel like such a bitch after that for practically yelling at the sick dude to suck it up.  He whipped his face, took a couple of deep breaths and grabbed his cell phone, dialing his best friend’s number.  “Hey man, I got some bad news today.  I’m at the hospital with Liz and the doctors say I have some kind of leukemia.”  I could hear Wayne’s voice but tried not to interject, letting the two of them have their conversation.  After Chris filled him in on the evening’s events, I heard Wayne reply, “Well, at least now you can smoke weed.”  Both Chris and I burst out laughing – it was probably the best tension-breaker I’ve ever heard in my life…and it worked.

After hanging up, we decided to take a break from reality and turned on the TV.   Appropriately, or not depending on how you want to look at it, an episode of House happened to be on.  It dawned on me that maybe Chris would be upset by the similar plotline, but when I asked if he wanted to change the channel, he declined and I didn’t argue with the decision.  For some reason, watching a random fictional character sit in a hospital bed dying of an unknown disease brought a sense of comfort into the room.

About an hour after breaking the news to us, the doctor came back in and explained the implications of his abnormal blood results, specifically the low hemoglobin (red blood cells) count, the high white cell count, and the low platelet (clotting factor) count. At this point, his immediate concern was the lack of a sufficient amount of platelets in his blood which could lead to internal bleeding. He announced that the quickest way to check for such bleeding was to perform a rectal exam. Whew, this was my out!

I told Chris I would give him some privacy while the doctor did the exam; help him preserve some of his dignity. He started to tell me it was okay to stay, but I hauled ass out of the room so quickly, he didn’t have the opportunity to get his entire thought out.  In reality, my own freak-out was bubbling at the surface, and while I was doing a great job of concealing it, I really needed a few minutes alone to lose my cool persona.

I didn’t even make it through the doors of the ER before breaking down and crying hysterically. I managed to make it out of the exam room, and really hope that as Chris was rolling onto his side to get his initiation into the world of rectal-violation, he didn’t see the plastered smile on my face melt into a grimace.  I was a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ER lobby door when the oldest couple in the entire Colonial Capital got between me and sweet freedom. Considering I was holding my breath in an effort to stave off hysteria and violent hiccups, I just about shoved the two of them out of the way. Surprisingly, the old man’s peripheral vision, processing speed, and reaction time were on-point, as he quickly ushered his Golden Years’ mistress to the side just as the door’s automatic sensor kicked in. I slipped by Mother and Father Time, took two giant leaps through the lobby, and was outside where I could fall apart without the fear of my claustrophobia kicking in too.

I got outside, lit a cigarette, and called my mommy – I don’t typically refer to her as this, but I was definitely having an “I need my mommy!” moment. By this point I was so far gone I was hyper-ventilating, which is not very productive when you’re trying to simultaneously suck out all the nicotine you possibly can with each drag AND initiate a phone call. Given the fact that my anxiety had a stronghold on my diaphragm making talking nearly impossible, when my mom picked up the phone she only knew it was me on the other end by the sobs she heard. She instantly went into mom-saves-the-day mode, “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“M, M, Momm(hiccup)mmyyyyyyyy…Chris…hospital…leukemia!” That’s about all she could decipher over the phone so she decided to come straight over. I managed to get out which hospital we were at and, given that the facility had just opened to replace the town’s very outdated community hospital, a landmark to help her find it.

Two hours later, we were walking circles around the parking lot; her trying to talk me through this and me chain-smoking. Being a very pragmatic woman, she was going through all the research hospitals in the mid-Atlantic region we could look into, the variety of ways we could cut our budget to accommodate the impending medical costs and loss of income, and a whole assortment of other practical issues that I would have to manage. On what was easily our eighth lap around the parking lot, I looked at her and asked, “Can I really do this?”

“Yes, of course you can. You are a strong woman and you love Chris very much,” she said as she gave me a comforting hug. It was at that point that my anxiety took a break and I was able to breathe again. As it turned out, she was right…but never again did my favorite wrap taste as good as it had before that day.

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