Okay, maybe not the commute in or the rushing-around-to-wait experience. But, the hospital has always been my place of comfort, kindness, belonging, and safety.
As the child of a doctor, I was very used to the hospital being “the place my dad worked.” My dad treated me to lunch at the hospital cafeteria every day when I worked in his office. After church, if he got called for an emergency, the entire family would all pile into the green station wagon and parade into the emergency room with my dad while he attended to a patient. We begged to get treats at the vending machines. We got used to the constant beeping of machines. And, seeing people at their worst — in pain, scared, impatient — and treating them with respect taught us about the importance of compassion.
When I was 10 years old, I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and was hospitalized immediately. I remember sleeping at the hospital by myself. My parents had the other children to worry about, and I was already so comfortable being in a hospital. I even remember the first time I had to advocate for myself. I had to get up to go to the bathroom, and needed some assistance to walk. I didn’t realize that there was a “nurse call” button, and I remember trying to get anyone’s attention by lightly banging on the wall behind me hoping someone would hear me. When a nurse finally heard my tapping and came into the room, I knew that, if I ever had to, I could effectively get help if I needed it.
When my daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age 2, the only place I felt safe was in the hospital. I liked the predictability of the routine. Check in, vital signs, chemo, sleep, play, chemo, eat, chemo, vital signs, sleep, chemo, vital signs, check out. I liked seeing the same familiar nursing staff. And, they liked seeing my growing belly with Baby #2 along the way. When the world grew cruel, staring at my daughter’s missing eye, I yearned for the accepting embrace of other parents in the hospital. And, each year as we returned for her check ups, I could breathe again knowing that she was still cancer free.
For the past 9 years, I have been coming to Mass General Hospital. Of those, I have been a patient for 7 years. Beginning in 2007, I was in and out of Mass General following my high risk of cancer due to the BrCA gene. Every three months, I was either having a breast exam or a gynecological exam to stay ahead of any tumors that were destined to develop in my body.
In 2010, those visits became less frequent because of my prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. Soon after, my breast exams went from 3x a year to only 1x a year. After a quick check of my implants, my surgeon stated “See you next year!”
Though my breasts had been removed, my visits with the gynecological oncology staff continued. Every 4-6 months, I had blood work done as well as transvaginal ultrasounds to stay ahead of any ovarian tumors that would develop.
After the removal of my ovaries on January 17, 2014, my visits will also decrease to 1x a year.
Life, up until now, has been routine. I’m used to the routine of going to the hospital, seeing the staff, and getting my favorite cup of Coffee Central coffee — a half decaf/half hot chocolate — a tradition I started when my daughter was a patient.
“We’ll see you next year,” my breast surgeon said. I started to tear up. “Actually, my family is likely moving to New York sometime this year. So, I won’t see you. Again. I’ll need to see a team of doctors in New York.” I couldn’t fight back my tears any longer.
I thanked her for her kindness. For her care. For, in many ways, saving my life before it needed saving. Because of the surgery, my risk of breast cancer has been reduced from 90% to <1%. My oophorectomy reduced my risk of ovarian cancer from 60% to <1% as well.
The oophorectomy closes the door on a long journey as a BrCA previvor. In about an hour, I’ll be heading into my last visit with my gynecological oncologist who, too, saved my life before it needed saving.
Over the past four years, my body has had parts removed, parts replaced, and scars to mark the path. But, I don’t regret a single day. In the few hours I have been at the hospital, I have seen a family react to a new diagnosis. I assisted a woman as she walked cautiously to her appointment, the frailty of her bones the result of harsh treatment and bone loss. I have listened to two men crying while looking out the wall of glass windows in the hallway. And, I saw a mother and daughter holding hands in the waiting room, siting in silence.
As this chapter in my life winds down, I wanted to thank you all for coming along with me on this long and winding road. Some of you ran next to me. Others carried me.
You all were with me.
May you be loved, live in peace, and be bathed in happiness today and always,