“My blood pressure’s going to be high,” I told the med tech.
“Let me guess,” she said. “You have white coat syndrome.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.” The reading came out 140/72. Not as bad as I thought. When I took it at home that morning it was 120/70. I guess those deep breathing exercises worked.
“Your O2 is 99%. Pulse seventy five.” The tech said. “All good. Now get on the table.”
I was at my cardio doc to get EKG for a minor surgical procedure next week but, as soon as I felt the Lysol accented wax paper on the table touch my skin, my vitals ratcheted up a notch.
“This is my first time doing this by myself,” the tech said. “But I’ll have the nurse go over it to make sure I did it right.”
“New on the job?” I asked.
“It’s my first month.”
“What did you do before this?”
The tech smiled, “I used to work at McDonalds.”
“I worked at a Burger King back in 1984,” I said. “It was brutal. Didn’t make it a month.” That was probably because my boss used to call me “Burger Boy” and always told me to get my “cute buns over here.” Now, looking back on it, I could have filed at sexual harassment claim – but such litigation was in its infancy back then.
“You’re not going to believe this,” the tech said as she put the electrodes on my chest, “But I worked there since I was fourteen.”
“Why so young?”
“I liked making my own money.”
“Which McDonalds?” She told me.
“I take my daughter there sometimes,” I said. “She likes the playground.”
“It was a nice place. The manager was very kind. It was like my family.” For the first time, I noticed the tech was trim, shapely, and the mask she wore highlighted a lovely pair of brown eyes. Glowing with youthful vigor, I figured she was in her early twenties.
‘You were there a long time,” I said.
“Yes, I was.”
“Well good luck on the new job.”
“Thanks. Now lie still. This will just take a minute.”
As I listened to the machine drone, I reminded myself that I’d always passed these tests with flying colors. But what if today is different? That’s when I felt a tickle of dread.
“All done,” the tech said.
“So, I said, trying to defuse the tension I was feeling, “Do you know what the irony of your life is?”
“You worked at McDonalds and now you work for a cardiologist.”
“You know?” she said, “I never thought of it that way.”
“Happy to lend you some perspective.”
“I’ll give the strip to the nurse and then you can go. It’ll just be a minute. Stay here.”
As is common in a busy medical practice, that “minute” turned into half an hour. As I waited, I found myself getting more anxious with each tick of the clock. Performing the breathing technique my therapist taught me to calm myself, I inhaled deeply, held my breath for a spell and then exhaled through my mouth slowly. This time it didn’t work – but at least I knew what was troubling me.
In March of 2021, I was sitting on another wax papered table in another antiseptic smelling room waiting for another doctor. Fearful and nervous, the minutes passed like hours and, despite my efforts to keep up calm, I was almost climbing out of my skin. Then the door swung open, and the doctor asked me to follow him to his office. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “The only time you see patients speaking with a doctor in his office is in a pharmaceutical commercial. This is going to be bad.” Then, as soon as I had settled into a comfy leather chair, the doctor lowered the boom. Cancer. Surgery. Survival rates. Do it soon. That’s when my soul left my body.
Watching myself from the ceiling, the part of my brain that was still working told me I was having a dissociative episode, a defense mechanism the mind employs when faced with severe trauma. Noticing I had mentally checked out, the doctor asked for my wife’s number, got her on speakerphone, and repeated everything he told me. As I listened to them talk, I noticed their voices sounded like they were underwater and very far away. Because of COVID regulations, I’d come alone so, when we were finished, I had to drive myself home. That I didn’t get into an accident was a miracle.
Then came batteries of tests to see if the cancer had spread and going to get the second opinion. More wax papered tables, Lysol and waiting for that door to open. The bone scan, which lasted an hour, was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. Then, as I weighed my treatment options, I bifurcated into two separate personalities – a middle aged man scared out of his wits on one hand and a ruthlessly pragmatic father of a seven year old girl on the other. Opting for the most aggressive treatment, surgery, was rationally a very easy choice. I had a wife and seven year old daughter who needed me very much alive. But all the emotional stuff that followed was quite a struggle. Somehow, with the support of my wife, family and friends, I navigated the storms – far from perfectly I might add – and had the surgery. Then, after the pain and months spent recuperating at home, I waited to see if the hell I’d been through was worth it. It was. The pathology reports came back clean and, after a year and a half, I’m still cancer free. I was very, very, lucky. So why don’t I feel that way?
Five months after my cancer surgery, I had to go in for a colonoscopy. My first probe at fifty revealed a nine millimeter polyp that was excised and biopsied. It was negative, thank goodness, but I was told I’d have to come back in three years for a follow up. So, when I got to the gastroenterology center that November morning, I was a nervous wreck – convinced that I would be on the receiving end of more bad news. “Just because you got lucky once,” my fevered brain told me, “Doesn’t mean you’ll get lucky again.” Let’s just say when they took my blood pressure, it was a bit high. The doctor, however, knowing what I’d been through, was very kind. When I woke up from my delicious propofol nap, I found him holding my hand. “You’re clean as a whistle,” he said. “One less thing you have to worry about.” I think I may have cried.
I never used to have a problem going to the doctor, but now it’s like running through a gauntlet of fear. When I went for my last annual physical, the wax paper, Lysol and waiting in the exam room triggered a small panic attack. The doctor, noticing my elevated vitals, asked what was wrong. “Doc,” I said. “No offense – but I hate all you people.”
“I understand,” she said. “You went through a severe trauma.” Then she took my BP again to make sure it had settled down, reviewed my blood work, told me to lose a few more pounds and then sent me home with a clean bill of health. All my fears had been for naught and, as I drove back to work, I remembered what another doctor once told me, “It is better to be lucky than good.” If that’s true, Fortune has indeed smiled upon me. But why don’t I feel lucky? Am I incapable of gratitude? Selfish or immature? There are some people who think surviving such a health scare should make you a more patient, kind, and spiritually evolved person. But here I am, still the same guy, filled with all the foibles and sins I possessed before rouge cells in my body tried to kill me.
I am now, however, very aware of life’s fragile brevity which has made me more impatient with peoples’ bullshit. Just a few weeks ago, I lambasted a health care worker who screwed up caring for one of my most vulnerable clients – swatting down his rote excuses and polite evasions until I forced him to say the words I wanted to hear – “I’m sorry. We made a mistake.” Then I hung up, leaving him to stew in his anxiety. Unkind? Sure – but if there was some kind of cancer canonization ceremony, I guess I wasn’t invited. Then again, maybe I’m just full of sour grapes, upset that cancer shattered whatever illusions of invulnerability I had left. Last month, when I talked with a relative who hadn’t known about my ordeal, he said, “You must have been so angry.”
“I’m still angry,” I said.
But I know anger helped me get through my cancer, giving me the energy to fight. People say having a kumbayaish attitude is essential when combating an existential threat, but saints die of cancer everyday while cosmically selfish assholes survive. Maybe I’m one of those assholes but being all beatific doesn’t improve your odds of survival one way or the other. It’s all a matter of luck. Random and scary but true. Besides, I didn’t have the energy to work on my sanctity. When you’re dealing with cancer, meeting people’s expectations of spiritual enlightenment is too much pressure.
Back sitting on that EKG table, I remembered that my outsized reactions were aftershocks from my medical odyssey. Maybe that will stay with me all my life. Who knows? But then a quote from Cormac McCarthy floated into my brain, ““You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” Rationally, I know my experience was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. If they didn’t find the cancer early and excise it when they did, my chances of making it out of my fifties would’ve been slim. And my anger? I guess I’m still busy raging against the “dying of the light.” I still feel guilty though, thinking that my trial should’ve made me a calmer, better person. But I know I’m still can’t wrap my head around what I went through, lacking the perspective to understand what grace, if any, my bad luck wrought upon me.
Driving back home, I wondered if I’d ever know.