Thursday, May 21, 2009

how it went

Mom's first day of therapy had its ups and downs. We left the house around 2:15PM for Mom's 3:20 appointment. Traffic was bad on 495, but we got to Fairfax Hospital a bit before 3. I dropped Mom and Dad off while Uncle John and I parked. It sounds morbid, but one perk of having a cancer patient in the family is the free parking: it's one less thing to worry about.

The Radiation Oncology Department of Fairfax Hospital is located in the basement level of a complex near the "blue" parking deck (sections in the hospital are color-coded, though I didn't see any "cerulean" or "fuchsia" zones). It's a quiet section of the hospital, proof against cell phone signals. We waited there until at least 3:40 before we were called to the back rooms. By that time, Uncle John's wife and daughter had arrived with some food, which Mom gladly ate: she had skipped lunch, as had the rest of us.

When the nurse called Mom back for her radiotherapy, she and Dad went on ahead, and I stayed back to ask whether my relatives wanted to accompany us. They elected to remain in the waiting area, which is probably a good thing: Dad and I later found ourselves in one of the cramped exam rooms; it would have been awfully crowded with three more people in that tiny space.

While I hung back to speak briefly with my relatives, Mom apparently fell as she was walking down the hallway. According to Dad, her right knee buckled, and she had to be helped to her feet. Why this happened, I don't know, but my initial thought was that it might be related to left-brain issues, since that's where most of the damage is. Needless to say, this was a distressing event. Up to now, Mom has shown small problems with her balance, but to our knowledge she hasn't fallen once since coming home. We all need to become more watchful on her behalf.

The rest of the therapy session went more or less smoothly. For obvious reasons, Dad and I weren't allowed in the room with Mom while the targeted radiation beams were activated, but we had the chance to watch Mom's prep at the beginning, as she had her face mask put on and her head tightly secured in place. She took the whole thing very stoically (no one in our family is claustrophobic), but she told me later that the techs had said there were some computer problems, which caused a bit of a delay. She also told me that she couldn't open her eyes during the procedure because of the way the mask lay across her face. Were I in Mom's situation, I'd probably want to keep my eyes closed. Being unable to open them would have been more of a blessing than a problem! Still, I felt for Mom: it couldn't have been comfortable to be held so firmly in place like that. Ten minutes can pass very slowly in such straits.

Dad and I were placed in a waiting room down the hall; we talked to a nurse about Mom's medication, about her current cold, and about her scar. The nurse gave us a good rundown on what we needed to know, and said that Dr. Tonnesen would speak with us in greater detail. The doctor showed up-- his usual low-key, affable self-- and reviewed what the radiotherapy was about, what to expect, etc. He then left for a bit to handle a call. When we met up with Mom again a few minutes later (therapy was indeed brief, perhaps 10 or so minutes), her cheekbones still bore the gridlike imprints of her mask. With Mom now in the exam room, Dr. Tonnesen returned, and we asked him about Mom's cold and about her surgical scar, which had been hurting her.

Mom's got a deep, rattling cough right now, which makes Dad worry that she might make her usual slide from the cough to bronchitis to pneumonia, conditions from which she's often suffered. Dr. Tonnesen told us, however, to be wary of jumping at shadows: it's important not to overreact every time Mom gets sick. At the same time, the doctor acknowledged that concern can be warranted, especially as Mom's treatment continues and causes her white-cell count to drop, making her more vulnerable to infection.

Dr. Tonnesen examined Mom's surgical scar as delicately as he could, though she still winced at his ministrations. In the end, he didn't seem too concerned about infection, not having found anything noteworthy along the line of the scar except for the expected scabbing. The doctor did, however, suggest that Mom get about the business of gently scrubbing away the last of the scabs.

The friendly presence of relatives made the day easier. Though I'm an introvert and not accustomed to brooding in front of others, I felt fine being moody and somewhat withdrawn in front of my uncle, aunt, and cousin. Mom was happy to have relatives around, too; that was obvious from her demeanor. While she still has trouble with the idea of showing herself to her friends (especially her Korean friends) in her current state, relatives are another matter. With relatives, you can relax. They take you as you are.

Mom goes in for treatment again tomorrow. Monday, she's off because of the holiday (though she won't be off the Temodar), but she'll be at it again on Tuesday. In the meantime, we need to (1) persuade Mom to smear on some Vick's Vapo-Rub, take a steamy shower, and get all that phlegm out of her chest, (2) get Mom walking around more in the hopes of strengthening her legs to avoid more falls, and (3) prod her to clear off the rest of her scabbing to facilitate healing. Per the doctor's advice, Dad will also be calling Drs. Meister (chemotherapy) and Leiphart (neurosurgery) about scheduling periodic or regular appointments for Mom. We also need to give both the National Cancer Institute (Dr. Fine) and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (Dr. Conrad) a heads-up about the fact that treatment has started; furthermore, we need to schedule appointments with their respective offices once the initial six-week phase of treatment is over. Mom will be flying back down to Texas for another day trip, it seems.

So that's where we stand as of today.

Ah, yes-- before I forget: a couple of Mom's friends called this evening; I apologize that Mom didn't answer, but she simply wasn't in the mood to talk (she quietly shook her head "no" when Dad announced who was calling).

My advice to you callers: PLEASE DON'T BE HURT! We, the rest of the family, do want Mom's friends to take her out and about, but Mom first needs to overcome the psychological hurdle of being seen in public as she is. I can understand, to some extent, what Mom is going through; it's a blow to her pride to be in this position. Any adult who had spent most of her life being fully functional and independent would probably feel the same way.

Mom needs reminders that her circle of care extends far beyond her immediate family, and even if she rebuffs attempts by those in the "outer circle" to be with her, I hope those good people will keep trying. One of these days, Mom's going to break down and say "yes" to some friend's offer to go out for a meal, and that moment will be the beginning of the renewal of Mom's social life. We know you're there for her. Deep down, she does, too.


1 comment:

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, I'm sorry to hear that your mother stumbled, but perhaps it's nothing significant.

We're pulling for your family . . . emotionally, anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *