Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is. (German proverb)
I met my neurosurgeon late in the evening on my second night as a resident in the hospital. The brief conversation was awkward. He asked standard questions about how I was feeling and then he got a chair and sat down, still at the foot of the hospital bed. He told me he looked at my MRI and he explained how the tumor was compressing my spinal column. They hoped the radiation would shrink the tumor before it paralyzed me. Then he seemed to struggle with his words so he blurted out, “I’ve seen a worse case.”
Those words lingered in the air as he fell silent and I played a quick game of chess in my mind. To ask or not to ask. Of course his statement begged the question, “Well what happened with this ‘worse cases’?” I decided I didn’t want to know and he didn’t offer any more information. He stood up and told me he was going out of town for the weekend but that I was in good hands and he would be updated while he was away.
Every morning thereafter started with residents tickling my feet at 4:30 a.m. and asking if I felt any tingling in my toes or fingers, along with other questions. The radiation started immediately. My life went from a super busy career and endless errands to waiting for the next test or procedure. I honestly felt like I was in death’s cross hairs. I wanted the doctors to tell me I was going to be okay and soon this would all be behind me. Of course I understood they couldn’t lie to me or give me false hope. I asked my oncologist how long I had but she dodged the question like a slick politician. Instead she assured me I would have the best quality of life possible and that I’d be comfortable. I insisted I wanted to be here for my grandkids and she asked when I was expecting them. When I told her there weren’t any in the oven, her shoulders dropped.
Hospitals are a whirlwind of activity and I was relieved when I finally got back to my room so I could shut the door and start to process my predicament. The evening was full of emotions that flooded through my body and seemed at war with my thoughts. Obviously I know we don’t have tenure in this world and I felt like I must be staring down the barrel of my fate. My brief future seemed bleak and I felt completely out of control. As I stared out of my hospital room window on that January evening, the bitter-cold Pittsburgh snow and the blackness of the night matched the darkness in my heart. That’s when love strolled through the door. My daughter said she couldn’t sleep and asked if she could stay with me. She crawled into the already small bed and as I held her tight the paradigm shifted. Life is about decisions.
It was that night, that moment, cuddled up with my 20-year-old baby girl that I decided to change my attitude. I chose to flip the defeated narrative in my mind completely. Fueled by my commitment to avoid looking up statistics or any other details of the disease that was attacking me, I chose to believe from that moment on that if one survived, so can I, and if none survived, I’d be the first. That was it. Of course rarely is a decision like that ever made just once, but for that night my resolve was strong and I kissed my daughter’s forehead as I drifted off to sleep.