On Christmas morning, I sat in a recliner in a room at CHI Saint Elizabeth while a machine dripped a breakfast buffet of antibiotics into my bloodstream, and you know what? I’d wager I was the happiest human in Lincoln. It was 8 a.m., and I was in outpatient infusion. Outpatient!
There are glass-half-empty folks. And there’s the glass-half-full contingent. That morning I started my own group, the “Hey-I’ve-got-a-glass” gang.
Sixteen hours earlier I sat in a hospital bed in a drafty gown with next-to-no white blood cells, only a few more platelets and a fever. In other words, the post-radiation chemotherapy for bile duct cancer had caught up to my immune system and made me a candidate for an infected anything.
From the moment I went into the hospital on Dec. 22, the medical staff braced me for spending the holiday with the good folks of adult inpatient care.
A few weeks earlier, my wife, Allison, and I started to joke that our sole goal this year was to get our family of six together in one place on Christmas Day. We were already fudging a little because our oldest son is on a two-year church mission, but we knew we’d have a video call with him so, technically, his face would be under our roof on a computer screen.
The tricky one would be our daughter, Genevieve. Two weeks before Christmas she landed in the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital in Omaha with worsening asthma. But we got her out on Dec. 10, her 16th birthday, which we marked with Chinese carryout. It looked like we were good.
The next Wednesday, Genevieve’s serious chest pains turned out to be air bubbles that had leaked outside her lungs and were moving up into her neck. There's a name, but it's so long and complicated I can't get close enough for Google to help spell it. A cold snap had filled up emergency pediatric beds in Omaha and Kansas City, so Genevieve was flown to Des Moines and the nearest hospital that could take her. With no extra room on the jet, Allison packed a bag and hit I-80 east. I’d just finished a chemo treatment, but I had enough energy to ensure our 12-year-old twins ate and changed their underwear regularly.
Genevieve was released on Dec. 18. We thought we just might make it to Christmas after all. But first I had a quick trip up to the Mayo Clinic for a Dec. 20 surgery to replace a stent in my bile duct that the cancer was trying to push closed. I didn't feel great, but the 6-hour drive home Wednesday was uneventful. Just three days to keep everyone out of the hospital until Christmas.
We didn’t make it. What I had assumed was some post-surgical wooziness turned into a fever, and both my home and away oncologists told me to get to the hospital. I got great care fast, but to keep me grounded in reality, they told my wife and me that we should be prepared to adapt our holiday traditions to a hospital room. What began as a joke was now reality.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, my body just couldn’t crank out a few lousy blood cells. And in their absence, I had to get IV antibiotics for just about any kind of infection that might lurk on a light switch, door handle or pair of 12-year-old boys.
By midafternoon on Christmas Eve, medical personnel could tell my body was trying, though still pretty ineffectively, to do what they’d been goading it into pharmaceutically. Finally at 4:30 p.m., an oncologist who looked nothing like Santa gave me the best Christmas present: He told me to ask Allison if she could hold the roast until 7 p.m., because by then I would be sitting at my own dining room table.
The price to be home for dinner, to spend Christmas Eve loading presents under the tree, sleep in my own bed in nightclothes with legs and be there Christmas morning when my three kids still at home thundered down the stairs was simple: I had to go back twice a day for two- or three-hour outpatient drug infusions for maybe a week.
So that’s why sitting in a recliner in a hospital room on Christmas morning was a wonderful gift.
The tumor remains inoperable but stable, like we’re having a staring contest via CT scan. Oddly, my wife and I find our eyes tearing up more now than ever, but they are always tears of joy, acknowledgments of prayers, acts of kindness or even a great bile duct joke.
I’ve been around a lot of sick people and caregivers lately. There’s little in life more noble than family members and friends sacrificing to help someone get better, get by or just get through.
So, it being New Year’s Day, here’s my vote for a resolution.
If you’re sick and struggling, look hard for the tiny blessings you can find in life every day, a beautiful sunrise, a really good doughnut, a hug, a good joke, a vivid happy memory.
If you’re the family member or friend of someone who is sick or struggling, try to figure out how to put a smile on his or her face just once a day.
And if you don’t know anyone who’s sick or struggling, well, you’re probably not looking hard enough. Sick people don’t always wear hospital gowns. And sad people don’t always wear frowns. But I’ve heard, too, that it’s OK to do good for people who are already doing well.
This was a roundabout way to follow up my October column. The cancer’s still in there and still about the same size. Hope, happiness and gratitude are all still there, too, but growing nicely.