I've never been the most energetic person on the face of the earth but neither would I have classified myself as a slug. Not until this past Spring that is, when I started to feel like I couldn't get out of my own way. No matter what time I went to bed I awoke tired and feeling like I hadn't slept at all; the smallest bit of strenuous exercise left me horribly winded with my heart beating at what felt like a mile a minute; and very recently even a short walk up a small incline has left me trying to catch my breath.
I had the feeling that all of this couldn't be entirely attributed to my advancing years, that perhaps there was something wrong somewhere, so I went to see my doctor. After going through the pin-cushion process several times and having what seemed like a hundred tubes of blood drawn, it was determined that I'm no longer on the edge of anemia, where I had sat for pretty much as long as I could remember. Instead I had jumped solidly down on the side of iron-deficiency anemia complete with miniscule red blood cells and low serum ferritin levels.
That certainly explains the fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, leg cramps, insomnia, etc., etc. - I've been feeling like I'm exhausted because I am exhausted. My red blood cells are too depleted to carry oxygen to my vital organs and apparently one's vital organs don't much care for it when they don't get enough oxygen. Go figure ....
My regular doctor referred me over to a hematologist, a doctor that specializes in blood and blood-forming organs, and as such I paid my first visit to Eastern Connecticut Hematology & Oncology this past Monday. For some reason, it didn't dawn on me until I stepped off of the elevator and stood facing the door that it was the office of Dr. Slater, my father's oncologist.
I had only been to Dr. Slater's office once and that was shortly after my father had died so unexpectedly during his CAT scan. Natually my mother and brothers and I had questions as to what had happened and Dr. Slater himself seemed flummoxed by the whole thing. He seemed genuinely upset about my father's death and assured us that it was not due to his non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He understood that we had questions but he didn't have any answers to give us. My Dad had very much liked Dr. Slater and felt that he had prolonged his life by several years when his previous oncologist had told him he had done all that he could do. In no way did I hold Dr. Slater responsible for what had happened but it was just a little disconcerting to be standing outside of his office.
As I sat in the waiting room filling out my paperwork, it occured to me that perhaps my father had sat in the same place filling out his own paperwork or waiting to be called in for his own appointment. For the first time, it dawned on me that I wasn't at a regular doctor's office, I was at an office that treated people with cancer - with diseases so horrible that we're afraid to mention them for fear that they'll attach themselves to the breath that we used to utter their names and we, ourselves, will become infected. As I looked around at the others waiting like myself I wondered what had brought them here, what their prognoses were, what the rest of their lives held in store for them.
After being called to an outer office and more blood was drawn (geez, I'm anemic as it is and you're taking more blood??) I met with the hematologist who explained my condition to me and the treatment that I needed. The cause of my anemia is yet to be determined but for now what it comes down to is that I'm a couple quarts low on iron and I need a fill-up. To that end, I am receiving intravenous iron infusions once a week for the next ten weeks.
I went in for my first infusion yesterday and though it wasn't painful, the whole experience was disturbing. I was led into another part of the office where reclining chairs are set up not more than four feet apart and though there were curtains dividing each section, they were all pulled back. There were eight chairs that I could count and most of those chairs were occupied by people in various stages of chemotheraphy treatments. To my far left was an older man and his wife receiving instructions on the pump that would be his constant companion both day and night while he received continuous doses of medicine. Next to him was a woman who was sleeping while her husband read a Stephen King paperback in a chair by her feet as the IV pump next to her sent medication through her body for what I later learned was breast cancer. On my right was a young boy of 15 who was receiving a treatment while his mother discussed school with him. There were several others beyond him, all either napping, watching TV, or chatting with a companion while they were in some form of treatment.
It hit me harder this time that I was probably sitting in the very same chair that my father had sat in when he came in for his own chemotherapy treatments; that of all the times he was there chances were real good that he had sat in that very spot several times wondering how the rest of his life was going to play out while my mother sat lovingly next to him and the medications ran into his veins. As I watched the old couple at the end receive their instructions and the man's wife ask a myriad of questions regarding his treatment, I could easily imagine the scene being played over and over again by so many others before them and no doubt many more behind them.
As I watched the fluids drip into my own arm I felt a bit like an intruder, an interloper, in a place where life and death is dependent on the treatments that those around me were receiving. But I also felt a lot of hope and love in that room. Hope that the treatments would be successful, hope that life would go on a little longer because of the medications that were being received, hope that soon maybe life could go back to "normal". The love was evident in the way a husband massaged his wife's feet while she slept, the way a mother laughed with her son, the way a worried wife asked questions.
It was a humbling experience and probably will be for each and every one of the nine times I go back there. Maybe by then I'll have gotten used to that room and the things that go on there but I rather hope not.