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What It Looks Like From the Other Side

Gary wanted to role-play. “Put on a little nurse outfit,” my husband said in puffs and pants and grunts. But excruciating pain ruined the moment. He hurt so bad that he was doubled over. I’ve seen my husband heat up a paper clip and use it to pierce his black swelling thumbnail during construction accidents. The smell of burning flesh and a little trail of black smoke left me with a sensory memory that’s hard to eradicate. Another time, I watched his hand balloon up and turn a bleached shade of pale because of a nasty chemical in tile grout. Both times, he kept right on working and never even consulted a nurse. But his pain last week was incomprehensible. “Take him to the ER,” our friend Doug told me over the phone. He’s a doctor and I trust him. I manhandled Gary into the car and raced to our local hospital where a meticulous young man took down information. “Could I get your social?” he asked. “Your height and weight?” I thought Gary was going to barf all over the desk. We learned later that my husband has a kidney stone. But things got complicated. Fluids backed up where there shouldn’t be fluids, and a hole punched through where there shouldn’t be holes. He had a procedure that went badly, and all the while, his pain required Dilaudid, a drug several times more powerful than morphine. Gary started talking to himself in a way that would have been funny in other circumstances. On day four at the hospital, a posse of doctors paraded out of his room, and a woman in a blue suit strolled in. While narcotic pain killers dripped into my husband’s system, she asked how we wanted to handle the bill and helpfully explained a plan that’d allow us to extend payments into the distant future. “Interest free!” she cooed with the enthusiasm of a used salesman. “The room itself is $5,500 a night.” I glanced at industrial equipment perched on white roofing material and wondered if we could get a better view. “That doesn’t include any of the actual medical care.” I almost asked her to hook me up to Dilaudid as well. “One of needs a job,” Gary mumbled. We’re self employed entrepreneurs, and we pay over two thousand dollars a month for health insurance – but apparently, it’s not enough. Meanwhile, Lauren is getting ready for her first day of high school. “I need new shoes, Mom,” she told me. For the first time all summer, I glanced at her sneakers. They look like I found them in a dumpster near a fast food restaurant in a bad neighborhood. I didn't mention it, but she needs a hair cut too. We’d planned to do the back-to-school rituals during our last week of summer break, but fires broke out near our property in Northern California and then this happened. Somewhere in our crazy mix of events, it occurred to me that this is what life looks like from the other side of the sick bed. I knew my husband did an extraordinary job of keeping a handle on things while I was in treatment for breast cancer, but this week, I tasted what my treatment must have been like for him. We’re out of toilet paper, my clothes smell, and I thought I was going to run out of gas when I backed out the driveway this morning. Bills are piling up on my desk, and eating out of a paper bag just doesn’t work for me. While I ran back and forth to the hospital, Lauren helped out around the house. “Wow,” she said one night over dinner. “You really have to keep up with housework or it caves in on you.” I looked at the countertop where she’d make spaghetti sauce and smiled. It looked like a crime scene. I guess she’s learning a few lessons through this experience too. When I reflect on my journey with breast cancer and my peek into the medical world this week, I’m struck by a remarkable certainty. Our system, flawed though it is, is amazing. It’s full of people, machines and procedures dedicated to making us well. I feel fortunate to be the recipient of these miracles first as a patient and now as a caregiver. Yes, I’m tired. My laundry is piled high and my energy is running low. But my husband and I get to watch our daughter go to her first day of high school. Even though she’ll be wearing a brand new cheerleading uniform, she’s too young to understand how much there really is to cheer about.

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