A Scheduled Amputation
With the banality of getting a cavity filled, MD Anderson scheduled an amputation. On December 28, 1987, Judy and I arose very early. Six years in the MD Anderson clinics had taught the virtues of punctuality. A crescent moon as thin as a cut fingernail hung in the sky.
To save money, the hospital had abandoned overnight stays on the eve of some surgeries. For me, the overnight stay felt more comfortable, more transitional, like a drivers’ training course at the age of fifteen before taking the wheel solo. “Same-day amputation” had the thud of a tennis racket with loose strings. Promptly at 8:00 a.m., a perky nurse appeared in the waiting room. praising the weather, with its cloudless sky, moderate temperature, and low humidity. In silence, I thought, “Yes, it’s a pretty day for an amputation.” Things got worse before they got better. Looking at the chart, she amiably remarked, “July 15.What’s your sign?” “Cancer.”
The woman, however, did have her wits about her. Oncology nurses are the first responders of cancer medicine, straddling the divide between patients and the surgeons wielding sharp scalpels, the radiotherapists aiming the photons, electrons, and protons, and the medical oncologists injecting the old-fashioned poisons and new fangled molecules.
After escorting us through an Alice in Wonderland succession of progressively shrinking waiting rooms, she paused and knowingly asked, “Would the two of you like to be alone for a few minutes before I take you to surgery?” Judy silently nodded. The nurse took us to a room barely large enough for the sofa it contained and quickly disappeared. Judy started to cry, not stricken sobs of grief but the less wrenching tears of losing the important but not the essential. Clueless, I resorted to male platitudes, suggesting that she “not worry too much,” promising that “everything will be OK,” and certifying that “we’ll be fine. ”With a forefinger to her lips, she hushed me. “Shush.” Glistening eyes conveyed the layered affections of a long marriage.
Cradling the hand, she gently tugged the wedding band from a ring finger thickened over twenty-one years. “This hand,” she whispered, “has made love to me and comforted my children. It is my flesh. Let me mourn it.” And she kissed the hand farewell.
An excerpt from "Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center", by James S. Olson, Ph.D.
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Johns Hopkins University Press