4 August 2007
The Day I "Caught" Cancer
Astrologers quip "It is a good year when you do not die three times." While most of us can never understand the complex perils of planetary alignments, this is nonetheless a reminder about how fragile life really is.
I had an experience last October that is still haunting me and I hope sharing it with you will be somehow cathartic. In the weeks before this blog was born I awoke in one night on fire. Minutes later I was shivering. Cool-headed Nut made me as comfortable as he could. It felt like one of the recurring episodes of malaria I had more than thirty years ago. Nut bundled me off to see my doctor at Big Famous Hospital early the next morning.
The doctor admitted me immediately. I was told the next day that I had pneumonia, the price workaholics sometimes pay in the tropics. Over the next week I was given the royal treatment--IV antibiotics, chest x-rays, sinus x-rays, a dozen pills a day, and shockingly bad food. When I was finally discharged I was given a bag of medicine and a stack of papers that include an x-ray order and a follow-up appointment.
It was not until several days later that I put the appointment into the my computer at about 05:30 before heading off to the airport for our company trip to Hanoi. It was then that I noticed the diagnosis written at the top of all of the pages: "LUNG CANCER AND BRAIN METASTASIS." I was numb.
For me the five days spent in Vietnam were a nightmare. I could not get the doctor on the phone and I was preoccupied the entire time with this unusual turn in my life. In a way it all made sense. My father died of cancer. My oldest sister had a brain tumor. Big Famous Hospital had x-rayed my chest and head several times. Thai people are reluctant to give bad news and I have heard that doctors in this part of the world routinely keep their patients in the dark.
As you might expect my thoughts turned to the dark side. How can I tell my mother? How can I tell Nut? Who will take care of my business? What will become of the 100 or so people in seven countries who depend on our company for a living? Should I die here or go to California? How can I possibly afford to pay for this? Should I try to find enough morphine to do myself in rather than go through the inevitable suffering? Who will water my house plants? My colleagues wondered why I was behaving so oddly.
Shortly after returning to Bangkok the day of the appointment came. It took me two hours to decide what to wear. (In retrospect I suppose that only a gay man would even think of considering the appropriate outfit to choose for an appointment where he would learn he was about to die.)
The x-ray technician took my appointment slip, read it, then stared at me. It must be the scary diagnosis. He held it so that it dangled from his finger-tips, like the cancer might jump off the page and infect him. A half an hour later I was outside my doctor's office. "You are next," the nurse told me. There was a flurry of activity--nurses rushing in and out of the doctor's office and making what appeared to be frantic phone calls. "They're calling the oncologist," I thought. "And a monk, a nun, a priest and a rabbi."
The doctor was visibly upset and poured over the digitalized version of my x-ray on her desktop monitor. "The pneumonia is gone, but I want you to do some deep breathing exercises."
I turned the monitor so I could see it. "Show me the cancer," I demanded.
There was no cancer, of course. Or brain tumor. Someone somewhere along the line confused me with another patient on the floor. I wondered what his diagnosis read. I also wondered if Big Stupid Hospital had been giving me his medication all along.
"You should feel lucky you are not going to die after all," my lawyer said...the typically-Thai outlook. There is no such thing as medical malpractice in Thailand. While I have the greatest respect for the quality of the health care here, some hospitals seem more prone to errors than others.
Nowadays when I look in the mirror every morning I see a man who is going to die. Up until October I was foolishly content in my immortality. I was older but not ageing. Sorry, but I can't mention the name of Big Evil Hospital, but you probably guessed already.
You may have had some contact with Joe in our office. He has always been a bit of a hypochondriac. for a while now he has been obsessed with his liver and his ongoing cough, although he was not concerned about it enough to stop smoking. About two weeks ago something happened between Saturn, Mercury and Neptune and his health suddenly collapsed. Nut and our office family and I went to visit him yesterday in a 16-bed ward with ceiling fans, glaring, uncovered fluorescent lights and bars on the windows; the kind of place where people with HIV are parked until the planets finally do them in. Nut gave him a hair cut and his father appeared soon thereafter with dinner. Joe says he may be able to get out in a few days. His mother and aunts are taking good care of him. Unfortunately I doubt that he will return to work for a long time, if ever. If you are someone who prays, please remember him.
Next time: Drunkenness, Desperation and Deceit. It reads like a movie script. I'll make popcorn.