Today I am going to start my story with a very short biology lesson, which is based entirely on my limited knowledge of medicine and mainly on experience. For those of you who are not aware of it –and I bet there are a lot of you out there- chemo is responsible for the drop of our blood count, meaning that apart from killing the tumor, chemo also kills our blood cells and especially our white blood cells. This may seem an irrelevant piece of information to many, but the fact is that during this period of time, our body is much more susceptible to all kinds of infections (viral, bacterial, fungal). During this period, doctors urge us to avoid crowded places and forbid us to get in touch with people that may have the slightest sign of an infection.
“When your white blood cells are under 1500 and you have a fever of 38 degrees Celsius, you have to come to the hospital immediately ”, was one of the first instructions I received from my doctors, and believe me they were very serious about it. These words were so stuck in my head that each time my white cells were really low, it seemed like I anticipated to get sick. I checked my temperature every two hours, and each time it didn’t show 38, I was almost disappointed. Maybe I wanted to stick to the plan and getting sick during those days was part of the initial plan, something that was considered normal and for which I was prepared each and every time.
My story begins on an unusually cold night of October 2011. My mom and I are currently living in the States, where we moved a couple of months ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer. We are staying at my aunt’s and uncle’s house in a remote suburb of Maryland (maybe not so remote, but back then it seemed like it). All kinds of infections seem very possible, since my white cells are so few that they are unable to fight off anything that attacks my body.
It’s 2am and the thermometer shows 38 degrees. I’ve been having chills for the past hour and a terrible headache. I wake up my mom and tell her. Her moves are almost automatic. She grabs the small suitcase that we often use for hospital visits and packs appropriate clothes and pajamas. I get dressed and take my toothbrush and toothpaste along with towels. I pack my laptop and my book, two of the most crucial objects, without which a hospital stay seems impossible. My favorite blanket and pillow are crucial too, because the ones I am given usually have a weird smell- well they smell like hospital. The numbers we have to call in case of emergency are written on a piece of paper that I pinned up the wall next to my bed. I call the hospital’s pager and the phone operator tells me that the doctor will call back soon. We sit on the bed, silent and very tired, while we’re waiting for him to call back. Besides, we know that this is only a standard phone call and that a trip to the hospital is inevitable.
As you guessed, after ten minutes we leave the house. It’s freezing inside the car, while the windscreen is so steamed up that we can’t see a thing. We drive off, with the big lights on, since it’s very dark. We’re both really calm because it’s something we’ve gone through several times already. I turn on the radio and a Justin Bieber song comes on. Even though my mom and I are not huge Bieber fans, listening to “Baby” at 2am is a fun way of staying awake. Suddenly, my mom slows down the car, as a deer is standing in the middle of the road, staring at us. It’s very common to encounter deer in Maryland especially at night. It is staring at us and we are staring at it, but it doesn’t show any signs of wanting to move. That’s when we start to laugh really hard. I don’t know what crossed my mom’s mind, but to me all of this seemed very surreal:
“I am thousands of miles away from home; I’m getting chemo(what? me?); We’re driving to the hospital in the middle of the coldest night I’ve ever experienced, singing a Bieber song along with my mom(!); And finally, a deer is blocking our way.”
Apparently, this scene almost reminded me of a horror movie, right before the serial killer is supposed to attack us. As you may guess, that never happened and for the rest of our ride, we were arguing about how and where I caught the infection that caused the fever. My mom blames walking around the mall without a mask. I, on the other hand, believe it was the kid, who was coughing next to me during a routine hospital visit. As we agree to disagree, we approach our destination. We take out the special patient IDs and get into the campus. We walk from the main entrance to the lobby and toward the elevator. I press the button to the 6th floor, where I usually get admitted. I hate spending time in here, but at least everything is going according to the plan and I should say that part of me is relieved.