My eyes were open today. This means I am alive of course, but even better than being alive, I was conscious today. I was aware of one of those common acts performed with such excellence that it becomes extraordinary, a true example of greatness.
It was a Tuesday after a Monday holiday, which means a busy day in the treatment room as they jam 5 days worth of patients into only 4 days of treatment slots. The faces were all familiar to Celeste, not as much to me, but I sensed an ease in the room.
The woman across from Celeste was clearly on the same treatment. She’d been in treatment long enough to feel comfortable taking a nap on her two hour break between the trial drug and her chemo treatments. Others showed their comfort by napping deeply enough to snore or chatting with the nurses about what each other did over New Years, and in some cases, Christmas.
Celeste was the second patient in the room. She was a good number of minutes ahead of the other lady in her trial, but things don’t always run smoothly with the pharmacy. We had to wait on meds, and the other lady finished about an hour ahead of us. She left her chair, and she and her mother left cheerfully yet wearily, pledging to see the nurses again next week.
With the first bag of chemo down and the second going on, we only had about 45 more minutes and we’d be out of there. We were more than ready to leave for home, a place we left at 5:30am, about 9 hours earlier in the day.
A family of four walked into the room with a medical assistant. Two of the four were an older man and woman, not yet old but later into middle age than Celeste and I. I guessed that the other two were their adult son and daughter. They stood near the door by the nurses station and took in the tour, which consisted of the assistant pointing around the room and explaining its major features: Chairs, bathroom, snacks. They glanced as she pointed but never really seemed to take in what she was showing them. Their eyes would look, but not closely or intently, as if they didn’t want it to really register. This was their new reality, but it didn’t look inviting.
After the tour, per treatment room visitor guidelines, the two younger adults were asked to leave. As they said hushed goodbyes, it became obvious that the older of the two men was the patient. The younger woman looked concerned and tearful as she hugged him. The younger man exchanged an awkward fist bump with him as he departed. They clearly didn’t want to be there, but they didn’t want to leave either.
The couple took the station across from Celeste, the one just vacated by the other woman in the same trial. The man sat in the treatment chair, his wife next to him in the guest chair. As the nurse began to discuss his treatment protocol, we could hear enough. Celeste looked up from her peaceful rest and said to me, “Same trial as me.” I nodded.
The new couple was quiet and spoke in hushed tones and strong accents. As the nurse explained the trial procedures, their accents didn’t seem to get in the way of understanding, but their lack of familiarity with cancer treatment did.
The nurse asked the wife, “What kind of port does he have?” The specifics of ports matter to the nurses. They need to be sure they can do everything they need through the port, such as drawing blood and delivering medications such as the trial drug and chemos. The wife didn’t know the type of port that was recently installed in her husband’s chest. She searched her purse for the specification card she was given when her husband had his port installed. She found it. Celeste carried her port card to her first treatment too. I kept a picture of it in my phone.
“Do you want to use the port for the trial drug today?” He didn’t know. His wife didn’t know. How could they? It was all so new and unfamiliar.
As the man sat in the chair, he seemed completely lost. And he was. That part wasn’t familiar to him. But it was to us. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is disorienting to one’s experience of life. His blank stare was gazing upon a world that had been turned upside down, and he was not able to trust the sensory input that had oriented him throughout his entire adult life. How does one find his way in unfamiliar terrain without the benefit of any familiar sight to guide him?
His nurse, Cortney, is fantastic. She’s smart, caring, kind, and reassuring. We know this because she’s been one of Celeste’s nurses for going on 6 months now. But despite her best efforts to help him acclimate himself, she couldn’t quite put him at ease. As he returned from the bathroom, before he climbed in the chair to officially become a “chemo patient,” he politely asked Cortney, “Can I take off my shoes?”
“Of course. We want you to be as comfortable as possible,” she said. But even shoes off and feet up in a big recliner couldn’t do a thing to ease the disorder behind his eyes or the rigid, fearful expression on his face.
Our time was up. We started to pack up. As Celeste returned from the bathroom, I handed her her coat and bent over to pick up the cooler and her purse. When she didn’t immediately take the purse from me, I looked up.
Celeste had turned her back away from me. She was now squatting down at the feet of the wife, holding the scared woman’s hands in her warm grasp, moving her gaze from the man to the wife and back again to be sure those lost eyes found something they could recognize.
I could hear her telling them, “It is scary at first, but you will figure it out. And you are in great hands. This team will take great care of you.”
As Celeste continued her reassurance, I looked at the man. His face was no longer frozen with fear. He was smiling. In this new world of uncertainty, he had found something familiar in my wife’s face and the gentle soothing wash of her words: Hope.
Before the man motioned me over to join the conversation, I just stood mesmerized by what I was seeing. Communication is both art and empirical science, and one never knows just how it’s going to go, especially when one is in feared, unfamiliar territory. I often describe it as a lock and key. The receiver’s mind is the lock, and the sender’s words and gestures are like a key that can fit precisely, opening a door to a new world, or jam in the lock, further closing off effective connection.
For whatever reason – experience being the new patient, a caring heart, a loving soul, open eyes, thoughtful understanding – Celeste had found the key to this man’s world at that moment. The transformation in his demeanor was absolutely magical, and it was an act of greatness. She won’t get a trophy for it (and she certainly doesn’t expect it), but she lifted a mountain today. She was doing the best she could do, and she was doing it by giving into something bigger than herself. She was giving her best to others. And that’s what great communication is. It’s a tool for opening up a world bigger than the one that revolves around the little self. She connected with another. She gave this man her time and warm words to improve his experience of one of the worst days of his life. What could be greater than that?
The four of us exchanged names and few quick stories about how they moved from California to Michigan years ago. It was very hard, they said, but they made it with perseverance and grit. “Now we have another thing to deal with,” the man said as he gestured toward his port.
As we left, the man and his wife were smiling, and there was a shine in their once dull eyes. When we got out the door, my eyes were shining too. I was sobbing.
Celeste turned with a smile and said, “What?”
“You,” was all I could manage.
I kept it together with others in the elevator and until we got out of the garage and paid the attendant. Then I had to let it loose. I could barely speak, but I tried to express how special it was to witness what she did for that man and his wife.
As she handed me tissues, I said, “I’m not sad, you know?”
“I know,” she said.
“I’m just so proud of you. Who you are. How far you’ve come the last 6 months.”
Pride gets a bad rap sometimes, and if I am being honest, proud wasn’t the best word choice to describe what I was feeling. I was experiencing something far more profound. More accurate words would be awe, wonder, inspiration, and transcendence.
My eyes were open today. My mind was clear. I was conscious of greatness. And thanks to Celeste and a family starting chemotherapy today, I was part of something bigger than myself.