Smile — You’re on Cancer Camera!

Hospital Hoedown

As most people reading this blog already know, I’m a songwriter and performer (as well as an ESL teacher). Many of my songs are of an inspirational bent so I play most of my gigs at spiritual centers in California. This past February my spirit was tested to the max, and it’s still in good shape as I write this.

Arriving at Unity of Davis that February morning, I informed Reverend Larry that due to the breathing problem I was experiencing, I would prefer to do the songs sitting down that Sunday. I just thought I was suffering from an unusually bad case of asthma. He took one look at me and said not to worry about the music, that he and the music director would take care of it and that I should just go take care of myself.

Since I was also shaking with fever, I reluctantly agreed. Mindy whisked me off to the local ER, and after a few tests the doctor informed me that he was amazed I’d been able to walk in under my own power… since I had one-third the red blood cells of a normal adult male. Breathing problem wasn’t due to asthma, turns out, but to severe iron-deficiency anemia — like from a bleeding tumor, maybe? ER doc also told us I likely would be spending the week in the hospital since he surmised that I had colon cancer that had metastasized to my liver!

“Cancer!?” Mindy and I groaned in unison, feeling like we’d dropped through a trapdoor. As far as I knew, I was one of the healthiest people in my circle of friends. We refused to let the news dampen our spirits too much, though. We know the power of staying positive during any healing quest. After my third saltwater drip I tried to cheer up the nurse with a bad joke: “Guess I’d rather be saline”.

After what would turned out to be only the first blood transfusion of my week, they put me in an ambulance to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. Nobody bothered to tell us that the ride wasn’t covered by our insurance or we’d have driven ourselves and saved 3,000 bucks (news we got four months later).

Once ensconced on the oncology ward at Alta Bates, Mindy refused to leave my side, even when it was time to go to sleep. So I made a space in my little bed and she snuggled in next to me for the night. Rules were broken but apparently her devotion made an impression, because next morning we were transferred to a private room, which made the whole experience much easier.

And so ended Day One of my cancer dance. Claire soon arrived to provide practical assistance, good cheer, and moral support for Mindy and me. Thanks so much, sister!

The nurses too were great, kind and efficient. By the end of the week, my fevers had been quelled and my hemoglobin raised and I felt much better, apart from my bloated feeling from having twenty-five pounds (seriously) of various infusions still sloshing around in my body. (Needless to say, for the next week I was never far from the john.)

Had two jam sessions in the hospital room over the next few days, one with my new-ish friend, world-class violinist turned ukulele master Jim Shallenberger, the other with old buddy John Remenarich. Mindy and Claire helped me invent some new lyrics, such as: “Another Cat Scan, such endurance! You must have some good insurance. Don’t worry. Be happy.” Luckily we do have good insurance, golden in fact. The bill for that first week in the hospital was $130,000 yet we owed only $50 of it for the emergency room visit.

But what happens when the therapies you really want aren’t covered? That’s when it all starts getting tricky…

(to be continued)