When Cardiology Meets Obstetrics

When we were pregnant with our third child, we were told to attend a refresher Lamaze class as ten years had passed since our last pregnancy. Figuring a free tote bag and some diaper coupons would be worth it, we dutifully went. In the middle of the class, the nurse leading the group told us about a new doctor in the practice. Fresh off the obstetrics assembly line, no one wanted to give birth on his watch. They encouraged us, however, to make at least one appointment with him as we neared our respective due dates. Meet the man in case he is on duty when your water breaks.

We did and as we walked out of the office, we said to each other, if this was our first pregnancy, we’d be scared shitless! This guy gave us every worst-case scenario, told us to get every test in the book. He had new knowledge and he wanted to share it…he couldn’t help but share it. By the time we left, there was the potential for a real freak-out. He led with disaster.

As fate would have it, he was the doctor in the practice that was on call and ultimately, the guy we were glad to have by our side when an emergency c-section was needed. His gentle yet sure manner was a perfect counterpoint to this new development.

Today we have seen more specialists and had more procedures than one would think possible in one day.

After a full afternoon of waiting for the angiogram to be done Wednesday, it was finally our turn. The expectation the doctors (and we) had was that the pesky left bundle branch blockage would show to be a pesky nuisance, the root of all discomfort. They’d clear up the blockage, pop a stent in place, and voila! Our ejection fraction would adjust itself from its normal 40-45% from the early chemo days to a health 100% and we’d be running marathons in no time, despite the fact that we don’t run marathons.

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Waiting

We do, however, have one of Rich’s original goals in place… we’ve booked a trip to Ireland in September. In three short months we’d be, with friends, experiencing the often wild and awe-inspiring island country from top to bottom and round again. Waterfalls, rivers, mountains, ocean cliffs, ancient ruins, pubs, villages… the stuff of literature and dreams. With Arlene and Kevin doing the driving and, as before, our support and companions, we’d see our goal come to life. We find we’re telling everyone so they understand our personal goals… This little tune up of ours, is merely a tune up to complete our preparations before we’re flying off to the land of my fore-father’s birth. And one of Rich’s dreams. Will the results of this hospitalization affect those plans?

Rich came out of that operating room and, test not quite complete, we’re admitted for a stay in the cardiac unit. Our tune up is not so quickly done. Rich’s heart has had since March a mere 15-20% ejection fraction. Time has not improved it. There is fluid in the pericardium which is the congestive heart failure that was suspected. But not only the left side of his heart is weakened. The doctors are dismayed to find the right side is weakened as well. The low blood pressures he has been experiencing, this angiogram and the tests that are to come will show that heart failure is the right description of what he has been experiencing. His blood hasn’t got the oomph to make the circulation effective… the pump is broken. Our own cardio doctor is recommending that we be seen here by the cardiomyopathy group.

Rich has been given a double dose of Lasix and admitted to the cardiac ICU floor; the CCU. Once more, he in a hospital bed, me in the standard vinyl recliner, and we settle in for the night, looking forward to the morning rounds where we’ll get some answers. As always when in crisis, we’re glad to be where we are.

 

One of our first doctors to stop in is from the cardiomyopathy group. She gives us a brief rundown on Rich’s condition and how it applies to her specialty. She applauds and approves the ketogenic way of eating we do. She will stop in later in the day.

When we do see her again, her demeanor has changed. She begins discussing what our options for treatment will be for the heart failure Rich is experiencing. Her opening is about heart transplants. Wait, what?! We went from expecting a quick stent procedure to ripping out his heart? She discusses the benefits of having the transplant assessment done in conjunction with the other evaluative testing Rich is undergoing in order to have that all in place.

While it makes a certain sense, it reminds us of that obstetrician 26 years ago who felt the need to give us all the doomsday possibilities, so eager was he to impart his new-found knowledge. Instead here we are listening to grant money, no cost to us thanks to a grant and adding to the growing prestige of the heart program in this hospital. Wow, we hit the jackpot! She ends with “but of course, our goal is to leave you with the heart you were born with and find other solutions first.” Alrighty then. Better. Because a groupon for a transplant is just too bizarre.

We listen to the rest of the options including a heart pump which would entail another four week hospital stay or simple medications… the last being the treatment of choice. Visions of Ireland begin to fade.

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First try for swan catheter. Before it turned into a Dexter set.

In between that first and second conversation are the tests, procedures and consults. His ejection fraction still at 15% is confirmed. Next, they stop his current heart meds and begin with Milrinone which is to help the contractions of his heart so the flow of blood will be stronger. After a few hours to let the meds begin to do their work, they feed a swan catheter into the artery in his neck. They will use this, while it is all hooked up to a monitor, to measure his heart output or how well the pumping action is improving. Improvement being our person preference! Twice they try and fail. His room, set up as a sterile operating room, looks like a crime scene. It’s decided that they will go to the cath lab to use some radiography to guide them along. Turns out some scar tissue from his chemo port needed to be cleaned up and then they were set. We thought what he was getting would look similar to the triple lumen that was used in the stem cell unit. Discrete. What he now sports looks like an array of medals on epaulets; his shoulders dripping with access points off a slew of IV tubing. And the catheter’s end, coming out of his neck, forms a swan neck type curve and connects to all these medals of honor.

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just a portion of the medals of honor

There are x-rays, sonograms, attempts to insert an A (arterial) line in Rich’s arms for additional monitoring. His veins are too compromised due to his condition. The odds are they will plump up when the pulses are improved.  It’s decided to wait 24 hours and try again.

With all the invasive procedures and contrasts used for helping us to find answers, as well as mentally processing the unexpected diagnoses and possible treatments, the night is uncomfortable on a number of levels.  Sleep eludes us. But there are signs that these new meds are working. Belly bloat way down and breathing eased. It’s a busy night and we hope we’ll have time for rest in the coming day.

The good news comes early in the cardiac care unit. An x-ray is needed daily to check the placement of the catheter.  The readings that are coming from the monitor hooked up to the swan catheter are more than we could have hoped for. The Milrinone is helping Rich’s heart and besides the expected changes that will bring, we’re thrilled that his oxygen levels, which had been anywhere from 80 to 100 are found to be a full on 100% O2 saturation without any supplemental oxygen. This truly proves that so much of what our pulmo doctors have suspected.

Finally, the daily weigh-in. In 48 hours, Rich has lost twenty pounds of water weight. The fluid around the heart in the pericardium and in his belly is lessened. Hydralazine is added to help open the veins to let the improved output flow.

The downside to these meds are that they give his creatinine levels a slight rise. All tests have shown that his kidneys are clear of any issues other than damage that is also chemo induced. Our nephrologist feels that the steady elevated numbers have been stable since his cancer treatment so our patient’s higher than the norm numbers is something we’ll monitor but will not interfere with. This added blip from the new meds is explained by her in a way that proves her compassion. “Our main concern is Rich’s cardiac health and his personal well-being. If his comfort and daily life as well as his cardiac health needs these medications, we can be comfortable with this new number for his kidneys.”
It’s also felt that, like his pulmo function, his kidney function will ultimately head in a healing direction and thus better numbers as his cardiac function improves. That this doctor is looking at the whole picture of living life confirms so much for us. This team of caring health professionals have blessed us with their knowledge and persistence.

The plan now is to tweak medications to optimum levels, currently adding in  and create the balance Rich needs. Once those are set up using IV infusions, we’ll then transition to oral meds for home use. Making sure heart and lung function maintain improvement and reach the goals we need to go home is the next step. Monitoring and less and less invasively through the weekend, we expect optimistically to be here til mid-week.

Lastly, our cardiomyopathy doctor, the one with the heart transplant conversation stops by again. She’s thrilled with the turn-around that has occurred. Before she leaves, she enthusiastically said “Remember that horror we talked about yesterday? Forget it. Forget it all. Those needs are good and gone!”

Tonight we expect to sleep soundly.

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Loving all the good news. And Rich’s neckwear, the swan catheter that’s attached to the medals of honor.

 

To Be Like A Lotus

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Our little pond in our tiny yard has been a source of calm in our lives. Each year we patiently wait for the leaves of our lotus to unfurl on to the surface. Later the flowers poke their buds up and spread their petals towards the sun. These same flowers retract under the water at night.

It is because of this rising from the mud that the lotus plant is associated with rebirth. From darkness, beauty. They teach us patience and show us we can rise above the miasma that sometimes finds us.

The past few months have seen us anywhere from the summit of mountains to the muddy muck of ponds. While our personal highs and lows have not been such a roller coaster recently, there have been moments where they felt that way.

Rich started his latest ketamine treatments in the middle May and went on into June. He had a small bout of pneumonia somewhere in the middle. Some antibiotics and six-day pack of medrol (steroids-lite), nebulizing over and over for months to come and we figure we’re good to go.

At the end of June, we reached a summit. Literally and figuratively. We set off for Maine by way of New Hampshire and Sturbridge Mass, singing in the car at the top of our lungs. Rich was at the wheel for the first time without another driver in the car to relieve him when he got tired. No more belt and suspenders… we were on our own.

Sturbridge has always been a place of peace for us. So many wonderful memories of family weekends… quiet winter mornings and hearty meals by the warmth of the fireside. Newborn animals in the spring, kiln fired pottery in the summer, the change of seasons and a chance to slow down. This was now just an overnight stop along the way as we traveled north, but, as always, it refreshed our spirits.

Rich’s feet were now renewed with ketamine and MMJ keeping the neuropathy at bay. The open road lay before us. The fog lifted from the White Mountains of New Hampshire as we drove, the peaks revealing themselves slowly through a haze. Adventure was in the air. Our plan for these next two days? Mountains… glorying in the mountains. We were not climbing and very few trails had our names on them.

Music blasting, open road, singing at the top or our lungs

As has been our need these last few years, we’ve made adjustments. On this day, we were traveling via train through the valley of the White Mountains and into the Notch. We would sit in a dome car, sheltered from the intermittent rain, and watch the waterfalls, gorges, woodlands and vistas through the windows of the vintage rail car. We would marvel as the walls of the notched stone closed in on either side before opening once more to the valley view below. We ate in the period dining car, reveling in the flavors and views.

The following day we found ourselves on the summit of the tallest mountain on the East Coast… Mt Washington. Here, the highest winds on the planet have been recorded. The old summit observatory and stage office displays a plaque on its exterior: 231 Miles Per Hour. We are awed to see this same building has thick chains that go up and over the roof in three places… secured into the granite to keep the roof, and the building, from flying away.

Despite our gear, we did not hike to this mountaintop. Rich’s feet and lungs, though so improved on his current regimen, are not up to the task. Instead we travel as others have for almost 150 years, we take the cog railway. Our fascination with trains has not prepared us for the wonder of this ride. It is not the view that captivates us. We can barely see through the clouds as we ascend; indeed, the fog itself rolls through the open windows of the car. It is the engineering that brings us such delight. What imagination!

With this help, we stand in the mist of the clouds at the top of our world. And we grin happily as if we had walked every step of the way. Success!

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Our weekend continues and we’re ultimately back home, tired but content. We have not seen the stunning landscape that the telescopes promise at the top of Mount Washington as the clouds never rose enough and we could barely see three feet ahead. But the journey itself was the prize. This could never have happened within the three years since Rich’s diagnosis.

The wheezing, though, never quite went away from the pneumonia. We check in with our pulmo doctor who recommends, cautiously, prednisone. A small dose. Rich agrees… it is time to hit this with all we can and get it gone once and for all. And so once more our beneficial bane is back with all its accompanying side effects. The second day on this med and Rich has had enough. The doom and gloom of the adrenals is hitting and hitting hard.

The morning of the third day I leave what sounds like a rather hyperbolic message with the pulmo doctor. Quality of life is gone. We’re in the muck. She know us.  She know we don’t exaggerate. We’re to stop prednisone immediately and to continue with the regimen of nebulizing. No need to wean off as the dose was so small and for such a short period of time. We’re relieved. Ready for that lotus to push through and blossom once more.

That relief is short lived. The two days later Rich is on his way to pick me up at the train station and his eyes are full of tears. He admits, it’s been a rough day. When we get home, the truth of that statement shows how inadequate it is.

Prednisone has many side effects and we’ve dealt with most. For whatever reason, it now manifested itself as it had never done before. As he drove down the street, Rich felt an overwhelming urge to open his car door and jump out into traffic in front of a moving truck. Again, his strength leaves me in awe.

The psychosis that prednisone can inflict has hit hard. He fought back and won. The doctors are stunned to hear this latest development. And yet, they nod. It’s a known problem. We spend the weekend on tenterhooks to keep this demon away.

By Sunday, in all ways, we can breathe a sigh of relief. This has passed us by. And so, we spent a weekend a month later celebrating Rich’s third year post-transplant. The roller coaster continues, but we honor our journey to date and give thanks for the life we live.

One of our celebrations found us in an apartment in Brooklyn attending class. Before us were a selection of mostly primary colored acrylic paints, some brushes, and canvases with dried lotus leaves applied. We spent the day mixing colors, some ending up the same color as the mud from which these lotuses grow, and applying the paints to our textured canvases. What a reflective and yet spirited adventure this was! We hang our masterpieces in our home proudly.

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A few weeks later, we spend some time once again the mountains, this time in the Catskills of New York. Our weekend is one of appreciation. Appreciation of the journey we’re on, the light and life we’ve been given and the beauty around us.

Some of that beauty in the amazing meals we enjoy by chefs who know what they are doing. Some in the architecture of mansion along the Hudson that we visit. Most of the beauty we celebrate is that of artisans, certainly more skilled than ourselves, who show their work at a juried festival we attend.

On our way back to Long Island, we stop at the botanical garden in the Bronx where we enjoy the artistry of Chihuly and of nature in bloom. There we find, within the garden’s, ponds displays of lotus, rising through the murky water, from their roots in the muck of mud, to reveal the light and color to which we humans can only aspire to replicate. From the depths comes beauty that raises us up to the light.

And for that reason we continually celebrate.

Rebirth.

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Take a Giant Step Outside Your Mind

“…Remember the feeling as a child When you woke up and morning smiled It’s time you felt like you did then. There’s just no percentage in remembering the past It’s time you learned to live again at last. Come with me, leave yesterday behind And take a giant step outside your mind.”

This song has been a little earworm going ‘round and ‘round in my head for the last few days. We find ourselves excited with our Icelandic adventure to start in a few hours tho’ there is just a tinge of apprehension coloring our plans. This is, for us, a huge leap in Rich’s recovery. In the past two years, we’ve taken weekend trips to visit family or traveled with friends. The support has always been close by and there always has been accommodation for Rich’s needs. Tonight we step onto the Icelandair plane and take, as the Monkees sang, a giant step outside our minds.

With us will come our assortment of medications both required and emergency. Rich’s cane will be our companion. We’ve opted for tours instead of our usual take charge kinda travel. Our schedule is varied but gentle. Our trip is a quick five days. With all these precautions, we’re still trying to get out of the patient mode that has deviled us on our journey.

“You stare at me in disbelief You say for you there’s no relieve But I swear I’ll prove you wrong. Don’t stay in your lonely room Just staring back in silent gloom. That’s not where you belong”

Ah, patient mode. We were well on our way to getting out of that gloom when just about a month ago Rich woke up with chills. Dammit. The Magic Fingers Bed was back with a vengeance. It took a full hour to stop the rigorous shaking that exhausted him and left him aching from head to toe. A handful of meds to counter the symptoms of an infection that seemed on its way, we waited for the doctor’s office to open.

I went to work figuring that this would be a quick Tamiflu script and we’d be fine after a few days. This was the first time in these two years that I was not planning on going to an appointment with Rich… because, you know, we’re getting outta patient mode. As I was speaking in a meeting at work, I suddenly stood up and said “I have to leave” and walked out the door. It was odd how strong that feeling was.

Rich was already en route via taxi to the doctor’s office and I texted him that I would meet him there. By the time I got to Great Neck, he was waiting in an exam room, having had an xray of his lungs to rule out one of the vast arrays of pneumonia he seems to latch onto. We sat and chatted while we waited for a doctor to see us.

During the short wait, Rich became uncomfortable. He complained it was hot which to me was understandable since he still had his hat and coat on. The complaints continued tho’… quite unlike him. The light was off in the room as is our wont. We find it easier to relax in a dim room when we’re in situations that could be tense. We’ve at times joked around by putting a candle gif on our phones and pretending we were on a romantic date; anywhere but a doctor’s office.

This time the romance ended when Rich started making heaving sounds. I flicked on the light and could see that this spasm wasn’t coming from his stomach but from his throat. I asked him if he was ok and there was no response. I got up, saw he was pale and clammy… beyond his glasses, his eyes were rolled back in his head as he continued to make these retching noises. I called out for help and the staff responded quickly, checking his vitals and getting him on oxygen… and calling 911. He pinked up quickly and came around though for the life of him he could not figure out how many fingers the PA was holding up in front of his face.

And so started a thirty-six hour marathon stint in the ER. The one place we didn’t want to be. Rich does get a separate room when he is in the emergency room because of his lowered immunology. But as a melting pot of germs, it’s still not optimum. His blackout was probably due to dehydration and a drop in blood pressure but being a single incident and his diagnosis to be otherwise Type A flu, we began our campaign to get discharged which was not as easy as one would think. Until our pulmo guru came on duty and stopped in. Immediately he was on board to get us home even while the hospital was prepping a room on the cardiology floor. Once again we are filled with gratitude for the team we have. They listen to what we say and respond with common sense. We’re blessed.

Once home, Rich’s recliner became his cocoon as he worked through the effects of the flu. We were again sleeping in the little room on the main floor as stairs were not yet possible. The walker was brought back into service. And yet it was good to sleep on something other than the cold tile floor. It took two weeks for him to begin to get to where he had been before this episode, the Tamiflu knocked back a good amount of the discomfort relatively speaking, but slowly progress was made.

And now prep for our trip began in earnest. But this episode did raise some flags we had thought we could put away for good and brings us the slight apprehension that we are doing our best to totally disregard. Instead we’re focusing on doing what we love most together… seeing new sights, meeting new people. The weather holds no promise for a viewing of the Northern Lights, the Hákarl fermented shark will still probably be the worst tasting thing we’ll ever try, and English will not be the first language of the citizens of the city we’ll call home for the next five days, but our itinerary will be more than we could have dreamed of doing a short six months ago. And for that we’re grateful. It’s time.

“Come with me I’ll take you where the taste of life is green And everyday holds wonders to be seen.

Come with me, leave yesterday behind And take a giant step outside your mind.”

I Sing the Body Electric

Walt Whitman wrote in his poem:

I sing the body electric The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them

They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

Rich’s PET scans, CT scans, MRI’s, X-rays, all reminded me of the first line of this poem. The same line that Ray Bradbury, one of our favorite authors, used as the title of one of his short stories. The same title that the song from Fame used, the lyrics to which include:

I sing the body electric I glory in the glow of rebirth Creating my own tomorrow/When I shall embody the Earth

It’s always seemed fitting for Rich.

With the cancer related deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman among others in the entertainment industry this week came an avalanche of media reporting that all included the phrase “battle with cancer.” And so Walt Whitman’s armies spring to mind once again.

We haven’t felt our particular journey to be a battle but the attention to the phrase brought about some research that made us think. In retrospect, perhaps battle is not such a bad term at all. It has its roots in Old French bataille from Late Latin battualia. The dictionary gives it to mean “exercise of soldiers and gladiators in fighting and fencing.” Not perhaps appropriate. The Latin from the Germanic battuere means “beat” which is one of our goals. Modern definitions include combat, conflict, contend with, struggle, or engagement. OK.

There is certainly struggle with cancer and its treatment… another word that seems to pop up when talking about cancer. And while we’ve had our struggles, again, not a word that would immediately come to our minds. We’ve definitely been in conflict with cancer… it has different agendas than we do. And yes, we’ve engaged cancer in a type of combat by throwing whatever weapons we can find at it. But again, none of those would totally define how we choose to view the last two years. There are different types of battles… battle of encounter, battle of attrition, breakthrough, encirclement, envelopment, annihilation. Certainly chemo is one of attrition… we strive to have lesser losses than cancer. Breakthrough… yep. Get through those defenses to find the vulnerable flanks. Annihilation… yeah, that’s been our end goal from the get go. Destroy the basterd. Those definitions would again negate our viewpoint.

But just as there are multiple types and definitions of the word battle, there are also numerous ways to approach it. If we were required to battle, our view would be more like Jujutsu… the martial art whose name can be translated as “the art of giving way.” It uses the enemy’s energy against themselves and thereby neutralizing their threat. So many of the modern chemo cocktails do the same, as we’ve learned on our journey; using the DNA of the cancer cells to neutralize them. We strive always to continue forward, not retreating in the face of an obstacle, but searching for resolution, a way to slip past. Rich has plowed through, courageously in my opinion, the side effects of cancer and its treatment. Sometimes it’s been a fight to do so but overall, these words that define our journey as an aggression just don’t seem to fit.

We’ve striven, over the last two years, to look at this as a puzzle to be solved. A path with detours to take. A goal to reach by the best means possible. By treating it that way, we tried to eliminate the angst and tension that the word battle brings to mind. While not passive on our journey… everyone needs a good compass to guide them… we have attempted to meet the challenges head on and be as best prepared as possible. When we approach our journey this way, we leave ourselves open for the joy in life instead of a focus on the negative.

We can visualize this path we are on as one of the many wooded paths we’ve hiked and see the obstacles cancer has put in our way as the temporary moments they are… to be considered no more than a rise in the path, a boulder on its way elsewhere, a sudden stream from a quick rain. We navigate them and continue on and marvel at the light as it filters through the branches when the sun peeks through the clouds and we know we are where the universe means us to be. We fill our spirit with these images.

1888842_10151973357547824_8882923113914141903_oAs we moved past the treatment phase and into the recovery, our journey was even less battle-like although our many trips to the hospital may not have seemed so. Before Rich went into the hospital for his last chemo marathon and the stem cell transplant, we went to the beach. Our first summer that we were dating was filled with sand and surf, a crowd of us filling the bus to either the north or south shores of Long Island. But this day, fatigue made it impossible to get to the water’s edge; instead we sat in the sun on the boardwalk and in the distance we could see the water’s tide moving in. The water would then pull back out but with each incoming wave, further up the sand the edge of the surf would come. Two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward… This movement of the water defined our experiences this past year. Like a tide coming in, we’ve had our forward movement, sometimes too slow to discern, but always there. A stumble back, temporarily, then stronger again forward. Progress.

In the dark of the night, when negativity can give way in a tired mind, the zen of the ocean’s heartbeat gives strength that we have been on the right path. There is a peace in that rhythm. That we will reach the point on the beach where we need to be. This has served us well. By releasing negativity and the tension of battle, we can use our reserves of strength to move on.

1540368_10152866330392824_7866573503062585462_oAnd moved on we have. With the new diet that we began in December has come new strength and clarity. We spent Christmas week in Rochester welcoming to this world our newest grandson and luxuriating in the frenzied activity of our other two. Surrounded by family, we reveled in the holidays. We made sure the Rich did not overdo but it was apparent that his energy levels have improved significantly. Our stem cell guru, who we saw before we took to the road, was thrilled with his progress. While acknowledging the results of the new diet, she said that many of her patients report that at a certain point in time after weaning off the corticosteroid, it seemed like a light switch turned back on. We rejoice in the evidence of this bane’s release. We still need to watch the gluten/fat/dairy/sugar involvement in our diet… there are swift and uncomfortable ramifications if we don’t… but it is good to have confirmation that prednisone’s grasp is gone. Fifty pounds of bloat have gone and we begin to see the end of the moon face as well. Our pulmonary doctor reports the best lung function testing that Rich has had in the last two years. His immunology is such that he can have the pneumonia shot. We pray 2016 will be pneumonia free. In the spring, our eighteen month old will begin his childhood inoculations all over again.

We welcomed in the new year with friends and looked forward with hope. As we rested on New Year’s Day, rejoicing that Rich was able to stay with us throughout the night, we discussed again our story.

What has defined us in the past and what would we want to define us in the future? Discovery through travel has been what we have missed the most. The planning as well as the journeys themselves are filled with fresh ideas and engagement with the expanded world around us.

And so, as has been one of our goals, we once again look towards seeing new places, meeting new people and learning new things. Debates continue as we consider the pros and cons of various travel destinations we have been dreaming of. While Ireland has been on the top of that list, there is so much to do there that requires more energy than Rich yet has.

In the end, we decide, with the help of a serendipitous Groupon, that a tour of Iceland is our next goal. The half days we’ve planned of mellow activities like lounging in thermal pools and one full day of touring in a comfy motor coach going from volcano to waterfall to geyser to rifts between tectonic plates seem perfect for our current state. The right mix of rest and mild trails and stunning landscape. A trip not too long in length, but enough. It will be a blessing to see other shores where those tides that empower us have landed.

We decide to listen to Mr Bradbury when he said, “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” If we should chance to have all the celestial requirements in alignment, perhaps we’ll experience the Northern Lights and charge our souls.

Live Long and Prosper

Two faves converged on November 10th this year. The Oatmeal, that marvelous online comic by Matthew Inman, and Star Trek came together in a poignant story of a moment in Gene Rodenberry’s life.

Growing up, Star Trek was one of the shows that brought our family together in front of the TV. Not for my brother and I the Lawrence Welk show… nope. We watched the future…. Going boldly where no man had gone before. That it ended up in syndicated reruns very quickly didn’t negate the attraction to the show. We continued to watch, exclaiming “Aw! This is a GOOD ONE!” virtually every time.

Rich and I continued that tradition as we dated, being attendees at the first New York City ST convention. We went to Nassau Coliseum to see Gene Rodenberry speak and to see the infamous blooper reel as well as the first pre-Shatner pilot episode on a big screen. Our son Richard was a very convincing Spock one Halloween. Yeah, we’re fans.

This particular day the online comic caught my eye, not only because it looked like a major departure from the artist’s norm, but also because of the Star Trek connection as it described Roddenberry’s actions as a crew member during a commercial plane crash in the Syrian desert. He calmed passengers and rescued them from the burning plane. But it was the last panel that truly resonated. The one that sums it all up:

“This story is not intended as an ode to Roddenberry, although he certainly deserves one. Prior to working in television, he was a decorated WWII pilot, a plane-crash investigator, and an LA cop. He survived three plane crashes. This story is intended to remind you that our journeys are short. Roddenberry saw life’s ephemeral nature lit up against a backdrop of stars. He saw that we are all passengers pitching downward into the night. He saw that we are all helpless. So get up, and help someone.”

From that moment, Roddenberry changed the direction of his life and turned to writing and television; creating Star Trek… a show that in many ways became a moral compass for so many of us.

Sometimes, when you get up and help someone, that someone is also yourself.

We’ve been trying to change our direction as well… trying to get out of that patient mode. To do so, we continue our baby steps concept and it seems to be working. Right now, our going boldly is tentative. After our night in the city, our next big event was travelling to Atlanta to celebrate our cousin’s wedding. We were so excited to celebrate the union of this wonderful couple and at the prospect of seeing family that we had not seen in close to a decade… from literally all over the world. We had four weeks to prepare.

Our usual pre-travel precautions were put into place: car service, airport wheelchair, an ion treatment for our hotel room to ensure allergens are removed. We also had to get Rich fitted for a rented suit to deal with the prednisone weight.

Before we traveled, we visited the cardiologist to check on Rich’s swollen legs and make sure that they would not be an issue for flying. A sonogram revealed no clots… we’re approved for travel. Compression socks are recommended during the flight. In an odd twist of medical multi-use, Rich is given a prescription for Spironolactone to help with the edema. The monograph from the doctor lists one of its uses as a birth control pill. The internet explains that it’s used to treat precocious puberty. Puberty??? He’s barely past being one year old!!! Manboobs are a possibility?

We decide to test drive the socks. At first we think we have the wrong size… no way is that little tube gonna fit those cankles! The doctor told Rich the swelling is to well above his knees. But some more internet research and some careful cankle measurements and indeed these are the right size. Thankfully, there are internet instructions on how to get these buggers on. Success!!!

1836728_10152765430177824_6597185865145480321_oOur travel weekend continues our baby steps approach. We arrive in Atlanta the night before the wedding. The next day, we meet up with our family for lunch and afterwards Rich opts to go back to the hotel to rest instead of sight-seeing with the rest of us. Later we get ready for the night’s events in a leisurely manner and we consider it a success that Rich is able to stay for a few hours at the venue before he heads back to the hotel.

Rather than pushing, he spends all day Saturday alternately resting and sleeping before meeting up with the rest of us for dinner at the hotel. Sunday we meet up with family one more time. Then it’s back to the airport for what turned out to be a marathon wait through a number of cancelled flights. As the hours wore on, Rich was fading fast. We finally reached the end of the possibility of flights home for the day with none actually going to our destination and we had to rebook; refusing any early morning flights or anything other than non-stop. Rich’s comfort and recuperation needed to be taken into consideration.

At the hotel the airline housed us in overnight, the staff was nothing if not gracious and accommodating. We were granted an extended check out time so that we didn’t have to sit in the airport any longer than necessary. We were put on a concierge floor which included an amazing breakfast buffet in a cozy lounge. After the stress of the cancelled flights the day before, this was a welcome respite. They even provided wheelchairs for the return to the airport, making our return home ultimately rather unremarkable.

Thankfully, Rich’s birth control pills were effective in bringing his edema down… still there, but improved. His lack of menstruation doesn’t seem to bother him.

We meet with our stem cell and pulmo gurus. We are granted a great gift… we can stop the prednisone. We’d been at a mere 1mg per day along with two twice daily nebulizer treatments. We can eliminate all steroid meds but one nebulizer and that we only need for another two weeks. Our wheezing watch begins. Within a couple of days, we hear a whisper of wheeze. We keep the duoneb for a day or two before going back on the plan to stop. This is not the time of year to be careless.

Getting off the prednisone is a big leap… we hesitate to jinx ourselves by celebrating it too soon. We’ve tried and been unsuccessful before… ending up with infections or asthma attacks that have hospitalized Rich. But as we look back, we see a pattern that gives us hope. Pneumonia has been on the back burner for months. Each hospitalization has been milder than the previous. We knock wood and cross our fingers. The Greeks are all spitting at the devil. There is no evil eye too remote to help us ward off repercussions of celebrations.

We have been told that it takes two weeks for the effects of being off the prednisone to show and in the past that has held true. We tentatively celebrate.

We continue to review the current list of medications and look to see what we can eliminate. There are some medications that are necessary to continue, either for heart health after the assault by the chemo or for immunology protection. Those are not ours to change. The immunology meds are to remain until Rich’s childhood vaccinations are re-administered. The prednisone has to be clear of his body before they can begin… hence our tentative celebrations on its demise from our box o’ Rx. Our next attempt at stretching our boundaries will be to wean off the Neurontin to see what the status is of the peripheral neuropathy without it.

It’s important that we try to get off of medications as quickly as possible to clean Rich’s system of these chemicals that do so much good but have the ability to do so much harm. It’s a fine line to traverse and we hope to get as close to med free as possible. But it’s clear very quickly that Neurontin is here for a while more. Within a day the neuropathy is making his feet jump at night from pain. Thankfully, the medication’s return has results just as swift.

We unfortunately have the need to start up some other meds this past week. As if to celebrate an anniversary of health status, the runs are back almost a year to the day. Immodium and then the prescription Lomatil are back on board to stem the tide. We need to contact the doctor to get tested for that dreaded c-diff again and refill the Lomatil. With luck, we won’t need to visit the opium den again but if we do, it’s good to know that this option exists.

We research and find this poopathon can be a side effect of the prednisone withdrawal. Rich’s been on this steroid almost continually for eighteen months and at times on extreme dosages… there is just so much built up in his system and the very slow tapering can’t totally compensate for this. We look at this latest development as evidence that the prednisone is on its way out. And with it begins to go the bloat… the ninety-five pounds of water weight that would just not go away over the last year is slowly, very slowly, beginning to resolve. While the process itself is not what we would prefer, if this is the way we get past the steroids, then so be it.

When this newest development comes to an end, it will truly be time to find a new direction.

To reach for the stars.

To Live Long and Prosper.

Longest. Ride. Ever.

About twenty years ago, our family found ourselves at Hershey Park. While the older kids went on the roller coasters, I went with Nick on all the rides more appropriate for the three year old he was then. One of which was a kiddie airplane ride where you could control the height of the little plane you sat in as it went round and round. Nick and I settled into our mini two seater and, with big smiles, waited for the ride to start. When it did, I realized that Nick, who didn’t like the motion, had slithered down by my feet. To anyone watching, it looked like I was the only adult on this embarrassingly small ride. There was nothing to do but practice my Queen Elizabeth wave and smile as we went round and round. Every time I tried to make the plane go higher, Nick would start screaming at me as he sat scrunched down by my toes and I had to lower it back to a mere hover. So there I sat, two inches above the ground, a grown woman sitting apparently alone in a vehicle meant for a child no higher than three feet tall and going nowhere really really slowly… waving. Rich, meanwhile was gleefully snapping photos. This was the Longest. Ride. Ever.

Right about now, Rich and I feel like we’re going round and round on the longest ride ever and sometimes feeling just as ridiculous with our precautions as I did that day on that little plane and getting nowhere reeeeeally slowly. We’ve been trying to make changes but it’s hard to think of yourself as a non-patient when every time you begin to increase your activity levels, you end up back in the ER. As we are finding, “Progress is not accomplished in one stage.” Victor Hugo was right when he wrote that.

And we always seem to have a crisis moment after those doctors give us a big thumbs up. After our round of stem-cell-birthday doctor appointments August 27th, we began to look ahead to our F*ck Cancer celebration scheduled for Labor Day weekend. The kids were all coming down from Rochester with lots of family and friends joining in. We were a week away! We finalized our menu and went over the details and started up the stairs to bed. Near the top of the stairs, in seemingly slow motion, Rich began to fall, collapsing in on himself. Shaking, he grabbed the railing and, with me close behind, made it into our room and onto our bed.

Out of nowhere, his temp was 102, his O2 levels 82. Body aches were starting up. Suddenly his breathing was the full symphonic again. The guidelines we have dictate if a temp of 101 or more is not resolved with Tylenol for more than 20 minutes at a time, then we need to go to the ER. All temps should be reported. The O2 levels were problematic. A cough is brewing. If we reported this to the on-call doctor, they would advise to go to the ER. Rich was refusing, putting me in the middle. So, instead of a phone call, it was time for some fast footwork.

First, ignore the phone. Then begin some regimens for these symptoms. Tylenol, Nebulizer, and luckily, a supply of the antibiotic Levaquin is on hand. Shortly, the O2 levels are back up, the temp is normal and we’re hoping the antibiotic is working its magic. We’ll see how the night goes. In the morning, Rich’s temp is still normal. Throughout the day, his O2 levels vary which doesn’t make me comfortable, but he pleads to stay home. And I don’t blame him. The lack of temp indicates Levaquin was the way to go… this is a bacterial something or other that was brewing. With luck, we’ve caught it in time. We spend Sunday resting from the long watchful night and monitoring those oxygen levels that can’t stay in line.

By Monday, there is significant improvement… O2 remains a steady near-normal. We call the pulmonary doctor who isn’t happy we didn’t phone over the weekend but is in accord with what we dispensed and understands our need to stay out of the ER. We agree to notify her with any negative changes.

Now’s the hard part… keeping Rich rested so he’s well for the party. And thankfully he is. “To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well,” said Issac Asimov, one of our favorite authors. So we improvise by bringing Rich’s Ikea chair (Poang!!!) and ottoman into the garden for him to relax in. Like a pasha, everyone will come to him for the bulk of the day…to greet his guests by getting up and down or standing for long periods couldn’t be an option… he’d be down for the count before the appetizers were done. And our plan works. Most of the day was spent in the chair but as the sun began to settle down, Rich then was able to get up and mingle, stopping at various tables to sit and chat. He only stepped away from the party for his timed nebulizer treatments. It was a triumph for him to be able to spend the entire day surrounded by so many friends and family, all of us celebrating that he’s in remission. Celebrating with gratitude for the support of everyone that helped us with love through the darkest of times and to find joy in the lightest. Those who were there in spirit followed us as well. It was magical.

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On Monday, Labor Day, we rang the farewell bells as we watched our kids drive off to their homes in Rochester. The house now quiet, we relaxed and enjoyed the aftermath of a wonderful weekend; reliving all the special moments, unwilling to let it end.

As we had for the past week, we continued to sleep on the main floor, still hesitant to try the stairs too soon. We settled in for the evening. Rich’s cough, though, kept tickling his throat. His side mildly sore from a week of coughing, the muscle pulled from the exertions. Overall, not problematic but annoying. Yet in an instant his body is in conflict… a cough and a sneeze explode at the same time and it’s as if his rib is physically torn apart. He screams in agony, holding his side as he falls out of his chair from the force.

Immediately, Nick and I rush to get him to the ER, calling the doctors on our way. Once there, like that little plane so long ago, the ER moves slowly on holiday weekends. After what seems an interminable wait, Rich gets a CT scan… riding off on the gurney smiling and waving goodbye to me like Queen Elizabeth. Like me on that stupid plane. As night once more becomes a new day, we get the results: lungs clear…rib unbroken… muscle torn. Sent home with oxycodone for the pain and valium to relax the muscle and advised to see our doctor within 24 hours. Thankfully: discharged. We feel reprieved.

The following day we visit the pulmonary doctor. She confirms the finding on the radiologist’s report and sends us home with some cough medicine with codeine to use in a few days when the ER meds run out. Calm the muscle, let it heal. Happy the lungs are clear.

Two weeks later, there’s still some pain… gotta be careful not to use core muscles for now… but overall healing. Cough for the most part is gone. Creeps in when Rich gets tired, but mostly gone.

So we continue to make plans. This time we revisit one we had to bypass in the spring when Rich was not up to the event… seeing the new show “Something Rotten” on Broadway. What better time to go than Broadway week? We forgo dinner in the city… that would make the night too long right now. Rich instead decides we’ll walk to and from Penn Station… it’s a beautiful night, just right for a slow stroll.

And it works. Tons of laughs, lots of fun. Great night out.

And we pay for it the next day. Exhaustion, swollen legs, foot pain and that pesky rib acts up. This on top of the continuing prednisone withdrawal and all the baggage that it brings with it.

Which all begs the question, how do we get out of this patient mode? Part of it is physical. But as the saying goes, a body in motion stays in motion – A body at rest stays at rest. We come up with a plan to create a routine of small tasks that will make the house run smoother and get our non-patient out of patient mode… work the mind and body.

The harder part is the mental. How do you stop thinking of yourself as a patient when every time you try, albeit by going unintentionally overboard, it sets you back? The frustration is overwhelming. We feel lost.

Baby steps seems to be the key. And that’s a hard way to proceed when you really haven’t done baby steps in sixty years. It is dispiriting when so many attempts create such havoc, but we have to learn from each one that the amount of extra effort needs to be very carefully calculated. And that there will be setbacks, but we can’t let them stop us in our tracks. One of Rich’s favorite pastimes is cooking. With the restrictions he’s had and the exhaustion, both mental and physical that the medications bring, he’s not had many opportunities this past year. But with Mr. Asimov’s words in our head, we make a plan to find interesting simple new recipes and Rich will go grocery shopping each day for fresh foods to fill the ingredient requirements. His day will be filled with preparing dinner with rests in between so as not to overdo.

For two days, we have excellent results and delicious meals. And then a fever flares again. We sit and look at each other. What to do? It’s not a huge temp… it just hovers above the “call it in” level. We decide to ignore it. It responds to Tylenol… we wait til morning and discover then the fever is gone.

We discuss how, pre-cancer, this temp wouldn’t even be a blip on the screen. Rich probably wouldn’t have even taken his temp but brushed off the chills he felt as a result of a rather cold marketplace. We discuss how our need to respond has changed with each successive fever over the last nine months. This time, there is no change in breathing or oxygen levels. The only medication needed was a couple of Tylenol… no nebulizers, no ER visit. In the grand scheme of things, this is an indication of some very significant improvement! We begin to move mentally out of patient mode. We’ll need to keep aware of body changes that could be problematic but decide that with caution, we can analyze these changes and review them with a fresh perspective.

The theologian Martin Luther wrote a commentary on the New Testament’s Epistle to the Romans. This book in the bible is full of focus on spirit… grace, transformation and salvation… a fitting one for our current place on our journey. Luther’s commentary says “To progress is always to begin always to begin again.” And so, as always, we begin to begin again… towards grace, transformation and salvation.

Renewal.