The river was more than 100 feet below as I hugged the narrow canyon wall. The first two knuckles of my fingers penetrated the small handholds I had dug out. I used my right foot to kick the soft canyon wall several times to get a small indention. I put the toe of my boot into the indention and slowly put my weight on it. It held. I moved my left foot to the indention my right foot had just vacated, and began digging out another handhold. It was a slow process making my way across the canyon wall. I had been in similar situations before but this time was different. I was not alone. My wife was with me. She was raised in New England, Bermuda and on the East coast. She was not accustomed to experiences like this, or at least she wasn't until we married. I had taken her on her first camping trip little more than a year earlier. Now we were clinging to the side of a canyon wall in Iceland with no ropes, no rappelling gear and no safety net. A canyon so inaccessible that if we fell there was no chance of rescue and quite likely our bodies would not be found for years. No one on the planet knew where we were and there was no way to call for help. We were truly alone with nature. I again used my right foot to kick the canyon wall in an attempt to make the next toehold. As my kick landed against the cliff wall, a 4- foot by 4-foot section of the wall fell away beneath me. Most of my toehold for my left foot was suddenly gone. My right foot dangled in midair. Both handholds were intact. I watched as a bowling ball size rock bounced off of a small ledge below. It bounced out into the canyon far enough that it appeared it would land in the river. Distances are deceptively greater in situations like this. I watched the rock all the way to the bottom as it smashed against a large boulder more than fifty feet from the edge of the water. I studied the wall carefully before attempting to again make the toehold. This time it held. Several minutes passed as we slowly made our way across the cliff face. I checked the distance to firmer ground ahead. Then pushed my upper body out slightly so that I could turn my head to look behind me. I looked past my wife to judge the distance we had covered in this section. Our trail of foot and toeholds was easy to see across the canyon wall. I estimated that we were about half way across that section. We would be on firmer ground in another forty-five minutes or so. I was in the process of turning back around when our eyes met. Those windows to the soul, which can relay messages and emotion with such efficiency that words, simply fail to compare. Earlier in the day, her eyes had portrayed excitement and adventure. Now they were welled to the point that I felt a tear might drop at any moment. The excitement I had witnessed earlier in the day had been replaced by fear. Up until that moment, I had been oblivious to the fact that she wasn't enjoying our little adventure at all. I have to admit that it was somewhat frightening, but I knew everything would be fine. She did not. She was following behind me on blind faith. In the 20+ years since then I have paid much more attention to those beautiful blue eyes. From across a crowded room they have said, "lets get out of here". On a sandy beach, they informed me that my eyes better not lower from hers. I was to not even glance at that bikini walking past. Those eyes spoke to my heart on many occasions. I remember watching her fingers glide softly along an iceberg as we floated past in a rubber boat. I looked up to find her eyes were filled with child like wonder. Together we watched the sunlight provide dancing rainbows inside the ice. In the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but ice, we sat, shivering in our parkas sipping Champaign with friends at an oddly placed picnic table. We talked and laughed and toasted, and in her eyes I saw only girlish delight. Walking among huge boulders on a black sand beach in Oregon, her eyes portrayed complete contentment. She was in her element, when I felt out of place. When we dined on food normally reserved for those of a higher station in life, food with names that I couldn't pronounce. Her eyes told me what would taste good and what wouldn't. When we looked into each other's eyes, high above the city surrounded by suits, ties and fancy dresses, her eyes comforted me. Over the years those eyes have spoken to me in many ways. They conveyed to me when she was happy, sad, angry, disgusted or hurt. Now my wife was looking at me through tearfully hopeful eyes, asking will you do it? I looked at the doctor across the room and then back at my wife. This decision didn't have to be made at this moment. A month would make a difference, a week might make a difference, but a day wouldn't. I honestly felt that a stem-cell transplant was not going to help me, but those eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes that had taught me so much about life. Those eyes were pleading with me. I simply smiled and said "yes".
There was no turning back now. I was committed. The plan was that I would enter the hospital in about a week. I would receive chemo 24 hours a day for 4 days through a central line, which would be placed in my neck. I would also be taking several different types of chemotherapy pills for 5-7 days. I would then remain in the hospital for another week while my blood counts dropped, bottomed out and then began to recover. They would then swap the central line out with a larger line, which would enable them to harvest stem cells from me. Then I was to return home and rest for a couple of weeks before returning for the transplant. When I returned for the transplant I would be given high doses of chemotherapy and then the stem cells that they had collected on the previous trip would be given back to me. I learned that the transplant wasn't the cure for the cancer. The dose of chemotherapy that I would take when I came in for the transplant was actually a lethal dose. By giving me the stem cells at just the right time in the treatment it would allow me to survive the "lethal dose" of chemotherapy. After I received my stem cells back, I would again remain in the hospital while my blood counts bottomed out and then began to recover. Then I had a 50/50 chance of going home to a more normal life. That was the plan, but reality was a little bit different. I had been taking an alternative treatment that I had found on the Internet. It was a mixture that I drank twice a day. Recently I had begun to have stomach pain. The pain continued to get worse, so I quit taking the treatment. My stomach pain was manageable as long as I ate at regular intervals. About a week before I was to go into the hospital I was having a rather long day. I finished up work just in time to head into Missouri for a meeting where I was expected. No time for dinner, it would have to wait until after the meeting. About 10:00 P.M. my stomach pain was severe and the meeting was still going on. I wasn't able to really concentrate as the others spoke. I found myself asking people to repeat them selves when I realized that they were asking me a question. This is the worst that the pain had been thus far. Finally the meeting ended and I quickly made my way to my truck and began the thirty-minute drive home. Once home, I washed down a couple of pain pills with large amounts of milk and began eating. The pain was back under control within a couple of hours and I was able to get some sleep. The day that I was to go into the hospital I was also scheduled for a PET scan and a CT scan. This meant no food or water after midnight the night before the scans. The day of the scans was finally at hand. I packed my suitcase, kissed my wife goodbye and headed for Little Rock. It was late morning when I arrived at the hospital. The stomach pain was back but manageable. I completed the first scan and then had a 2 and a half hour wait for the next one. By the time I finished the next scan the stomach pain was debilitating. The scan had taken longer than expected and I was now late for the appointment with my oncologist, so there was no time to eat. I made my way across the hospital to his office. I think when the staff looked at me they knew something was wrong. They quickly brought me into an exam room and the doctor was there within minutes. I told him about the pain and he handed me some pictures from a test that had been done earlier. The pain was too distracting for me to really look at the pictures. He sent me down to another part of the hospital and told me that he had made arrangements for them to give me something to help with the pain. I went where I was instructed. After a 30-minute wait, my name was called. I followed the nurse into a room full of recliners surrounding a center counter with computers and nurses. There was an IV pole next to each recliner. I recognized this as a chemotherapy room immediately and knew which recliner was mine. It was the only recliner without a body in it. This was much larger than the chemo room back home, and much more busy. The nurse worked quickly and had a needle in the vein of my arm within seconds. She told me this was a large dose of morphine and asked if I had taken morphine before. I said "no". She said that if she gave me the entire dose I would be asleep for a while and suggested that I take only 1/3 of the dose. I agreed. She slowly injected the miracle juice into my arm and I felt my face flush and warm, then relief. Instant relief. She had me set there for a few minutes while she monitored my vitals.
I looked at the other patients setting around the room. This had become an all too familiar scene for me over the last year and some months. I had developed categories to fit each type of patient. First there were the discounted. I called them that because they always exaggerated their discomfort level and one never really knew which category they belonged in so they were discounted altogether. These were the hypochondriacs who were lucky/unlucky enough to have a serious disease. They craved and fed on attention. They would need pillows behind them and under them and around them. They would need blankets and more blankets. They would often sit and gag and spit up throughout their treatment. Simply put, they were annoying and disgusting not only to the staff, but also to the other patients, visitors and even their own family members. They really put a downer on the whole chemo experience. That may sound odd, but often times the chemo experience could be quite rewarding. The chemo experience was visiting and bonding with others in a similar circumstance. You shared in each other's highs and lows. It sometimes felt as though you were all on the same sports team, trying to accomplish the same goal. When things went well and one of your teammates finished their treatments and was not expected to return. You were happy for them, but at the same time, a little sad. They wouldn't be in your little group anymore. The next category were the freaked out. These were usually but not always newly diagnosed. Nothing could be said to them or done for them to provide any level of comfort. They perceived their situation to be somehow different and worse than everyone else's. They often times graduated into the discounted category. I fell into the next category as most cancer patients did. They may or may not have been bald and they appeared fairly healthy. They read or talked to each other or family members while receiving their chemo. One might notice an occasional twitch or spasm. Nothing more. The next category was the unhealthy but alive. They were thin and hairless, but their eyes were open and still held life in them. They joined in the conversations or read. They were sometimes on oxygen and often might have other health issues. Then there were the half-dead. Their wheel chairs sat next to the recliner they were in, or sometimes they received their chemo in their chair. Some of them had additional problems such as diabetes. One such woman was skeleton thin except for her legs, which were swollen beyond any point that they might be useful for anything except holding up a blanket. Her arms were so thin that one could easily discern the two distinct bones running lengthwise in her forearms. No blood veins were visible. She was receiving her chemo through a port in her chest. It would have been impossible to find a vein large enough to get a needle into it. Her skin was wrinkled and sagged on her arms, neck and face. I wandered about her age. She looked like she must have been over 100 years old, but in truth she was probably less than half of that. Her head hung down and to one side. A caregiver wiped drool from her mouth. She rarely looked up and when she did, she didn't make eye contact with anyone or anything. Her head would swing in a wave like motion and it was clear that her neck muscles were too weak to control her head movements properly.
Her eyes were grayed with no spark left within. Those eyes did not speak to me, but her face told an endless tale of agony and misery and suffering. I wondered why she continued with treatment. Wouldn't a seat at the feet of Jesus be better? I wanted desperately to get up and ask everyone to gather around her and then ask her if she was saved. If she answered "no", we would pray for her to be healed to give her more time to come around. If she answered "yes", we would pray that Jesus take her away to a better place. I wanted to, and I should have, but we do not live in that world. I rationalized there must have been some reason for her to hang on like she was doing. Who was I to interfere? I continued scanning around the room to what I thought of as one of the rolling dead. They were all the same. They received their chemo in a wheelchair or in a bed. Their heads hung straight down in front of them and they never looked up. Their eyes were closed. Those windows to the soul were forever cutoff from this world and would relay nothing more. They were often hooked up to an oxygen machine. They sometimes had a belt around their chest to keep them from falling or sliding out of the wheelchair. A caregiver might lift them up every once in a while as their limp body slumped ever lower. The wheelchair footrests would be pushed as close together as possible and I wondered if their legs weren't sometimes tied to the wheel chair to keep them from sliding out. They rarely moved. When these people died there would be no outwardly visible sign. I wondered how long it would take someone to notice when they did pass on. These people did not appear to be able to communicate with anyone. No one talks to the rolling dead. They talk at them in a patronizing high-pitched tone normally reserved for very young children. What right does anyone have to subject these people to this type of living hell? The rolling dead do not live. They simply exist. If anyone there was truly compassionate, they would have rescued them from their rolling hellish prison with a lethal dose of morphine.
The morphine nurse came to tell me that my vitals were ok and I could leave any time I wanted. She told me the rest of the dose of morphine would be there for 4 more hours if I needed it. After that it would be discarded. She asked how long it would be before I was admitted into the hospital. I told her that I didn't know. The oncologist's nurse would call me when a room was available. I walked to the cafeteria feeling like I was in la-la land. I ate and remember little else. I was still setting in the cafeteria when my mind started to return to the real world and the intense pain that existed there. I sat there contemplating whether or not to get the rest of the dose of morphine. I didn't really want to go back to la-la land but the pain was bad. I had survived worse pain before though. I was getting soft, I thought to myself. I tried to distract my mind by counting floor tiles, ceiling tiles and what ever else was around. My cell phone rang. It was the morphine nurse telling me it had been 4 hours. She had to throw out the morphine unless I wanted another dose. I didn't know how long it would be before a room was ready for me and I quickly rationalized myself back into the temptresses chair. This time after entering la-la land I went out to the parking garage where I had parked. I had started smoking at an early age and had continued the habit into my thirties. I had quit for six years, but had been smoking again now for about 2 years. The doctors had told me that smoking had nothing to do with my cancer, but that I still needed to quit. My plan was to quit when I was admitted into the hospital. I lit one up and smoked guilt free for the next couple of hours in la-la land.
The next time my cell phone rang, it was with news from the oncologist' nurse that my hospital room was ready. I grabbed my suitcase and headed up to the seventh floor. I was greeted by a very nice nurse who showed me to my room, then left me there telling me to make myself comfortable. I had been in a hospital for a few hours once before. That room was much different from this room. This room was nicer and larger than a lot of hotel rooms. The nurse soon returned with a computer on wheels and started asking me questions. One of the questions she asked was "have you fallen in the last 3 months?" I tried to remember and thought to myself; it was winter, it had been icy. I think I recalled tripping over a branch and falling when I was deer hunting. I told the nurse that I couldn't recall specifically, but I was sure that I had fallen in the last 3 months. This was a big mistake. I was branded as a "fall risk" for the remainder of my stay. A nurse had to come and walk with me before I was allowed to leave my room by myself. "Fall Risk" was written on a placard outside my door and on a wristband that I had to wear. This brand continued to haunt me through every stay that I had at this hospital. The computer couldn't remember what I was allergic to or what foods I didn't eat, but it remembered that I was a "fall risk".
The morphine had worn off and the stomach pain was back to its normal, tolerable dull roar when I awoke the next day. A doctor came in and we looked at the pictures my oncologist had given me the day before. They were pictures of my esophagus, stomach and part of my intestines. They revealed that my alternative treatment had burned my intestinal tract in several places and had actually burned a hole in my stomach. This is what was causing my stomach pain. He prescribed some medication that would help this heal. He told me that it would not completely heal until after I was finished with all of the chemo that I was about to take. I was fitted with a central line and hooked up to chemo. I began taking dozens of pills everyday. Most were chemo, 2 were for my stomach and I honestly don't know what all the others were for. I would ask about each pill, and if it sounded like something I didn't need, I wouldn't take it. This action was mainly reserved for the stool softeners that they insisted I needed. I knew otherwise. The four days of chemo passed by as I got to know the staff. Once the IV chemo was completed, they started giving me a shot twice a day in my stomach. It was a growth hormone, which would force my body to produce stem cells, which would then be harvested. Everything was progressing well and was pretty much what I had expected except that I hadn't quit smoking. I wasn't smoking much, but a few times a day, I would slip on my black "cowboy boots" and head for the great outdoors to get my nicotine fix. The nurses had pity on me and brought me some hospital pants to wear with my hospital gown. They said it wouldn't look as funny with my boots. I didn't really care about that. I was however grateful for the small amount of privacy the pants provided my caboose. Occasionally I would go a day without smoking, but this was rare.
Four or five days into my stay I developed a small amount of pain in my spine. An hour later and the pain had increased dramatically. I tried "walking it out" to no avail. The next time the nurse came in I told her what I was experiencing. She informed me that it was caused by the growth hormone, which caused the bone marrow to work over time. She said some people had no pain and others had severe pain. I was in the latter group, as I would soon find out. She brought me some pain pills and then a doctor came to see me. He asked if the pills were working. I told him "not yet, but I didn't think they had time to work yet". He said he could give me something stronger if I needed and encouraged me to take him up on his offer. I thought back to my experiences with la-la land and declined his offer. Thirty minutes later I was regretting that decision. One hour later I was requesting my good doctor friend personally escort into la-la land as quickly as possible. My pastor came to see me at that time. We talked as I squirmed in agony. The pain was constant, but more intense pain pulsed in waves in perfect rhythm with my heartbeat. Frequently a wave of pain would hit me with such intensity that I would experience an uncontrollable gasp as it took my breath away. I had been cut, scraped, punched, kicked, burned and had broken bones and most recently experienced fairly intense stomach pain. Nothing I had ever experienced compared to this. The nurse finally arrived with some morphine and told us both that it would knock me out. My pastor said he would stay until I was out, then he would leave. She squeezed the morphine into my central line and I felt slight warmth across my face. Nothing more. The pain was still there as intense as ever. She returned in a few minutes with more morphine. My pastor again said he would stay until I was out, then he would leave. She injected the morphine, faster this time I noticed. I felt warmth on my face and the pain lessened slightly. This time the miracle juice barely took the edge off. My pastor and I continued to talk and soon I was squirming again. The nurse came in to check on me. She must have known that I would be in pain because she had made arrangements for a stronger pain medication and had it with her. She said I would be out immediately once it was injected. The pastor and I did our, by now, familiar goodbye ritual again. He talked to me, she injected me and we all looked at each other. All of us were waiting for my conscious switch to be flipped. It didn't happen, but I did enter la-la land this time and the pain was almost completely gone. The pastor and I talked for a bit more then prayed together. He could see when my eyes were finally getting heavy. He stood up to say goodbye. I never saw him leave the room. I was out. The next couple of days were a blurry haze of semi-consciousness and deep sleep. I vaguely remember nurses asking me if I needed more pain medication. I don't remember answering them, but am sure that I did. I only remember getting up to go to the restroom once during those two days. I know I went more, but don't remember it. One of the nurses brought my plastic urinal and hung it on my bed at some point. I came out of a deep sleep and into a drunken slumber long enough to get it back into the restroom. I had to hold myself up with my arms. My legs worked very poorly or not at all for a short time. I remember trying to figure out how to get the urinal back in the restroom since I required my arms to help me walk. I thought it made perfect sense at the time to bite down on the lip of the urinal and that way carry it back where it belonged in my mouth. Thankfully before that could happen, I realized that I could simply toss it instead. It hit the door-frame, but after a round of drunken urinal soccer, it ended up somewhere in the restroom.
During one of my semi-conscious moments I rolled over onto my stomach. This simple action apparently prevented me from getting my next dose of miracle juice on time. I was able to become aware to the point that I could feel the pain again. This time when the nurse asked if I needed more pain medication, I was able to tell him yes but less than before. I made sure to be on my stomach covering my central line when I went out that time. The next time I was asked, I declined the miracle juice. The pain was still there, but not nearly as intense. I didn't want to move. I just wanted to lie there. That is probably just what I would have done if it had not been for an over whelming urge to feed my nicotine addiction. I grabbed my coffin nails, slipped on my boots and stood up. My vision went black and I was instantly dizzy. I steadied myself and waited for it to pass. I stood there for a moment taking in what I was feeling. My spine felt empty, like a hollow tree. It felt like it might simply snap into at any moment. I hadn't known that it was even possible to feel pain from inside a bone until this experience. I had broken bones before, but didn't remember the bone actually hurting. I recalled more pain from the damaged flesh around the broken bone. Not the bone itself and certainly not inside the bone. I took a small step. My legs were a little shaky but I was able to walk. I waved at the nurses gathered around their station as I passed by. They welcomed me back to the real world. I thought I saw something in their eyes telling me that the worst was over for this stay. I could have imagined it, but it turned out to be true any way as the rest of this stay was uneventful. The nurses had referred to me as a walkie-talkie before my little bout with the bone pain. This is what they called patients who could walk and speak, as most of the patients in this wing were not so fortunate. I stumbled to the parking garage and lit up. I breathed the smoke deeply into my lungs and exhaled slowly thinking how glad I was to be a walkie-talkie again.
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