How Heroes Are Made

I stared at the stainless steel walls. Stainless steel in a hospital made sense because it is a metal inhospitable to germs.  Nothing else at the moment made any sense.  On the inside I cried out to the Lord. I didn’t know where to go from here. Darrell and I had been together for such a short time. It was our fourth wedding anniversary and I remembered well running this very scenario through my mind the night before I got married, wondering if I wanted to marry a man six years older.  I reasoned then that none of us know how much time we have on this earth so it was better to love than to miss out on it. I knew anything could happen at any time. But in the vision I had, we were going to live happily ever after to the ripe old age of ninety something. Of course, there is never enough time when you love someone.

We never really think about our mortality until faced with it. And even now, I refused to accept it. There had to be something that could be done to reverse this. Hadn’t the Doctor said that they had made great strides in the medical filed in the area of cancer? Didn’t he mention experimental drugs, procedures, and surgery?  But my greatest fear, outside of losing Darrell, was the thought this might be a long, lengthy, lingering illness for him and I would have to nurse him through to the end. Could I do it? Did I have the strength? Would I spend most of my time cowering in bathrooms?

We all choose different survival tools. I had just recently returned to my spiritual upbringing. I had been praying all through this. I never asked why. It was a waste of time. I always thought, why not? Why not  me?  Everyone has to go through life experiencing some type of pain. So rather than ask why not, my motto had always been what now? How could we move beyond this moment? What would this journey teach me?

I pulled myself up by my boot straps. Wiped away the tears. Prayed to Father God to give me strength and direction. Most of all I prayed for a sign that things would be okay.  I had been gone for an hour and a half.

With new resolve drug up out of a reserve I didn’t know I had, I headed back to his room. His sister had come to see him while I was out. The lines around Darrell’s eyes relaxed and a tentative smile turned up the corners of his mouth.

“Are you okay?” he asked hesitantly.

I stared at him. How could he be asking me if I was okay after he had gotten news like that? I should be asking about how he felt, consoling him! His sister was staring out the same window I had just a while ago.  I could guess what was going on inside her head.

“I’m fine,” I said, “just needed a break, that’s all.”

“You ran out of here so fast you scared the doctor. He asked me if it was something he said.”

I laughed.

“Oh yeah, it was something he said alright,” I responded wryly. But I could feel the emotional storm rising again. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of him cutting into you,” I choked out.

His eyebrows rose, a frown crinkling the skin on his forehead. Puzzlement shone in his eyes. “What? Don’t you hear this stuff every day at work?”

“Well, yes, but when it comes to being one of my loved ones getting cut on, or hurting, I can’t take it. I have too much empathy for them.”

My favorite ornery grin transformed his features. “Nice to know you care. For a moment there I thought you might not be coming back.”

His sister turned away from the window. “He really was worried.”

The rising emotional storm turned into disbelief. How could he think I would leave him?

“Honey, I just couldn’t take the ‘cut you this way, or cut you that’ way statement. I’m not leaving you. I love you.”

“Well you better explain that to the Doctor. You really shook him up when you ran out. They are going to do surgery on Tuesday. But first I have to have a blood transfusion. ”

As we discussed the schedule for the next two days, I thought to myself how brave and calm he seemed to be in comparison to me. Darrell accepted his fate commonly and reassured us things were going to be fine. As he said, there was nothing else he could do about it, so no need to worry about it.

This was a side I had never seen of him. As his confidence calmed me an odd little thought crossed my mind. This was how heroes were made.

 

 

 

The Flight Response

The Flight Response

Yup. I was hiding in the bathroom again.

Don’t worry; it isn’t always going to start like this!  I eventually break the habit. This day was actually a turning point. The journey had its highs and its lows. Remember, this was all new to me. I had never faced the death or illness of a loved one before.  And even though I worked as a CNA, it was a lot different caring for other people than someone close to me. The responsibility and heart connection was a whole new experience.

It had started that morning.  Darrell had insisted on sleeping in the nice recliner they had in his room. It kept his side from aching as much. He always liked recliners. I stayed with him every night, so that left only an empty hospital bed or a plastic chair for me to sleep in. I was exhausted from almost a week of hospital living. He insisted I take the bed. We decided to ask the evening nurse if this was okay, and she said yes.

The morning shift nurse that found me slumbering in his bed was not amused nor a happy morning person.

“This is against hospital policy, ma’am.  This bed is for the patient. Get out of it now.” Of course this was at 6:00 AM.

Darrell growled back at her. “We got permission and my wife is exhausted. I prefer the recliner, because frankly the bed is hard as hell.”

She huffed and bustled off, giving me the evil-eye.  When she left the room Darrell and I giggled, feeling like we had won something grand.

Next in was his Doctor, who informed us tests had come back and the gastrologist would be in to see us shortly. Relief flooded me because we would finally have an answer.

The gastrologist got right to the point. His voice quietly washed over us as he pronounced the findings.  “You have a tumor in your colon that has perforated the bowel. It has come back positive for cancer.  The best treatment at this point is surgery. Your surgeon will be in to see you next. Do you have any questions?”

I held my breath to block the sudden wave of adrenaline that turned my blood cold and tears that threatened to pour out. I thought it was a death sentence. Looking at my pink-cheeked husband, who was in the prime of life, I couldn’t see the invisible specter of the enemy.  I thought they had made a mistake. It happens, doesn’t it?  A misdiagnosis?   There was a scrambling of thoughts crashing through my mind as I stared at the demure-looking man who had just torn my world apart.

I glanced over at Darrell. He was nodding his head, a blank look in his eyes. I suspected we were both experiencing something similar except for him it had to be far worse since he was the one who actually had the cancer. I knew I had to ask questions. Darrell just went with the flow of things and depended on my limited medical knowledge. I found my voice. “Is this where the bleed is?”

The gastrologist looked relieved for some strange reason. “Yes. From the looks of it, it has been going on for a while. Mr. Gabel, have you had any black tarry stools?”

Darrell’s eyes focused and his eyebrows rose. “Yes, but I just thought it was something I ate.”

“For how long?”

“Well for a couple weeks at least.”

The gastrologist went on to explain the body couldn’t break down blood so it came out colored black and sticky. I was thinking other things, like how I wanted to strangle my husband. Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he mentioned the tiredness, the pain, the change in bowel habits? I would have known immediately to get him to a doctor. Was it all men or just Gabel men who were oblivious to the fact they were not immune to disease or illness?

Silence filled the room after the gastrologist left. Darrell’s pleasant baritone filled the air as he stated, “Well that sucks.”

I turned away from the window I was staring out of while I forced myself into emergency mode and put the tears on hold. “You think, Sherlock?” I fired back.

He smiled. It was our way to handle stress with humor and sass. Anyone else would have expected my condolences and comfort. We just teased each other. It was where we were comfortable.  Besides, I was angry with him at the moment, but lecturing him now wouldn’t change anything.

The door opened again. For a room that had been empty of any medical personnel the last few days, but usually crammed to the brim with family and friends, it seemed suddenly Darrell was most popular patient on the floor.

A tall, boyish-looking surgeon strode in, offering his hand. “I’m Dr. Brown, and I will be doing the surgery to remove your tumor.  I need to do a brief examine and discuss your options.”

The usual litany of questions went on as he lifted Darrell’s gown. “Are you allergic to any drugs? How old are you? Any other health concerns? Do you smoke? For how long? Any family history of cancer? “

I watched him, wondering just how old he was. The shock of hearing the word cancer was wearing off. I wanted to hear reassurances. I wanted him to tell us that the surgery would cure it. That this was survivable. That all would be okay. Instead….

“Mr. Gabel, the surgery should take about two hours, depending how much the tumor has spread. We will be checking lymph nodes, and taking tissue to test to see if the cancer has metastasized. From there, after surgery, you will see your physician and discuss any further follow up of treatments including chemotherapy. Now…”

He stood back, staring at Darrell’s abdomen.  I had to know what was going to happen. I started asking questions. Absently the surgeon answered while still staring at Darrell.

The he turned and looked at both of us. “So I can either cut down laterally between the abdomen muscles here.” His finger traced the path down Darrell’s stomach. “Or I can do what is called a ‘Mercedes cut ‘across the chest here…”

It was at this point I panicked and ran out of the room.

It would be the last time I sought out a porcelain sanctuary during his hospitalization.

And Then….

I was hiding in the bathroom, crying.

Darrell had been admitted to the Oncology floor at the Deaconess. I knew this is where they treated cancer patients. I remember as they wheeled him into the room I wondered why.  I felt paranoid. What did they know they were not telling us?  Four long days of excruciating tests and they were still puzzled over what he had.  I was just plain scared at this point.

His room sat at the end of a hall which opened out into the nurse’s station. Next to his room was the family waiting area teeming with nervous people. Beside it were the bathrooms.

I was in what I called my ‘emergency mode”. Calm on the outside, ready to do what I had to do, but when it was all over I would flee to the bathroom to let the tears out. My family frowned on crying and I grew up seeing tears as a weakness.

And the tears were pouring at the moment. I had just watched and participated in the most excruciating test Darrell had gone through yet. They had taken a bone sample from his pelvic bone. In so many of these tests I knew what was going to happen, yet I stayed silent. Why inform him ahead of time so he could worry and fret? Wasn’t it just better to let it happen then console?

When the Doctor came in with the big burly aide, Darrell knew something was up, especially after he complied with the request to roll onto to his stomach and the aide held him down. I was in my customary place, clutching his hand, and soothing him with a quiet voice. I told him it was going to be okay, when in reality, nothing was okay.  After they numbed the skin, I watched as they bored into his back with what looked like a huge hollow needle. His eyes grew wide and I knew he was clenching his teeth. I smoothed my hand over his cheek and leaned in closer.  I had always seen him as a strong individual in both health and personality. I had thought I would die long before him, even though he was six years older. Now, he had a panicked look as his lips thinned into a straight line and a low groan slipped out of his throat.

“Just a few more seconds, Mr. Gabel, I know this isn’t pleasant.” Darrell’s brow furrowed, and if I hadn’t been wallowing in my own concealed panic, I would have chuckled. I knew that furious look well and what type of language was going through his mind.

Then I heard a soft crunch, my hand tightened on his. The bone had been penetrated. Darrell’s breath left him in a loud rush and before he sucked in another, a curse slipped from his lips.

“I know, I know it’s not comfortable. Just hang in there,” the Doctor encouraged.

Time can stand still. Really, it can. It elongates out and becomes sludge. Tears threatened to spill and I looked away, holding my breath.

How could they not be doing more damage than good to an already ailing body? He was low in blood platelets, yet they continued to take tubes and tubes of blood to test for various diseases. They interrupted his sleep at night to check to see if his heart was still beating and he was breathing.  He had a scope run down his throat and one up the other end, where nothing should ever go. And yet, they still had no answers. Now this procedure was definitely doing more harm than good.

I had thought the medical world advanced. I worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide and knew enough to be dangerous. But even with all my head knowledge, it was my heart that hurt the most. I could watch any procedure done on someone I didn’t love, but to watch it done on someone I loved, the empathy nearly killed me. And yet, my loved ones depended on me to support and get them through. It was torture. But I was quickly coming to realize that the medical field ran on one part clues, one part knowledge and mostly pure luck.

The body only gives so many clues and if they are not read correctly, a whole myriad of diseases can be misdiagnosed or missed. So as they poked and prodded him, I clenched my teeth and continued to reassure him things were okay.

The procedure was done. They gathered their tools of torture and left after reassuring Darrell he had done better than most.  Tears shimmered in Darrell’s eyes and in a hoarse voice he said, “That was the worst thing I have ever gone through. Do you know how much it hurt? They said it wouldn’t, but they lied. It hurt like hell.”

I had spent a few more minutes consoling him before I fled to the porcelain sanctuary I now cowered in.

It Begins

In May of 1990, I heard the diagnosis of ‘cancer’ for the first time.  The queerest feeling settled in my stomach.  My heart rivaled the cadence of a racehorse’s hoof beats.  At the age of thirty six, I had never dealt with this disease and to me, this was a death sentenced to my soulmate.

It had started quietly enough. Darrell was a hard working man, running his own theatre business. I worked at the hospital to supplement the income. So it was no surprise to me that after he got what we thought was the flu, that he would come home in the afternoon to take a nap.

You see the symptoms, but you attribute them to something else. Like maybe he just couldn’t shake the flu. Until one morning, due to an extreme pain in his left side,he couldn’t get out of bed.

“If you don’t go see the doctor today, I will call an ambulance right now,” I growled. I had been encouraging him to see a doctor, but like most men, he said he was fine.

“Okay,” he acquiesced with a grimace.  I helped him get ready while calling into work.

Two hours later I was breaking the speed limit trying to get to Billings, MT.  His hematocrit was 18, normal can be anywhere from 28 to 35. Somewhere he was losing blood. His doctor wondered how he had managed to walk in there, let alone be conscious.

I knew Darrell was sick because this was a man who never closed his eyes when I drove and he was passed out in the back seat. Normally I would have been gleeful that I was pushing the little K-car far beyond it’s limits at 80, but my mind was filled with fear.

I prayed.  Please don’t let it be leukemia, please don’t let it be an internal bleed, please don’t let it be……on and on. I didn’t leave out much it actually could be.

Finally, with tears scalding my cheeks, the road blurry in front of me, I slowed down. I decided I would just trust the Creator I had prayed to for so long. This was in His hands. Whatever the outcome, I knew He would get me through. It wouldn’t be the last time I would take this test.

A calm filled my heart and mind. As we checked into the Deaconess Hospital, Darrell revived enough to joke around with the receptionist.

“Yes, my last name is Gabel. All my relatives live in the Billings area. If their last name is Gabel, I’m probably related.” Billings was his home town. They had a lot to talk about. But I was thinking If she called me Mrs. Gabel one more time, I would smack her.

It seemed foreign to me. The oddest things stand out when you are under stress. Mrs. Gabel was Darrell’s mom, not me. It seemed so impersonal. Yet Darrell and I rarely used warm little nicknames, like ‘honey’ or ‘sweety’. Having started our relationship off by working with each other professionally, we always used our first names.

That was about to change. A lot was about to change in our world. Unfortunately I would become intimately acquainted with cancer.

I felt that sinking feeling when my husband’s mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2006.  We raced to fulfill her last few desires.  The last two months were agonizing for all of us.

In 2008, I once again heard that detested word. I already had a foreshadowing of what was to come when I noticed my husband limping across the living room, then discovered the lump in his thigh.  This time though, I was a little more battle scarred.  I knew the routine and dug in.

And just as I finally thought we had won the battle, I heard the word that I detested in March, 2015. The feeling that washed over me this time was pure anger and determination.

I realize now I will never hear the word cancer and not feel that moment of panic. No matter how many times I face it. Like any disease, it insidiously and slowly saps our energy. It takes our loved ones in pieces. Yet, as dark as this might sound, it is a mixed bag of blessings as well.

You never look at a relationship the same. It becomes more precious. You can never appreciate truly someone or the time spent with them, until you are stripped of the expectation they will be with you forever on this earth.

All I can say is cancer simply sucks.

Living in the Shadow of Death

On May 12, 1990, our 4th Anniversary, we received the news that Darrell, my husband, had colon cancer. So the journey began…….

That was going to be the opening line to the book I had planned on writing someday about my first introduction to the world of cancer. But I chose instead to live every minute of time I had with my husband to it’s fullest limit.

Sadly, on September 6, 2015, we finally lost the battle to cancer, twenty-five years later. During the last months of life flights, tests, surgeries and hospital stays, I stared out windows of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at Salt Lake City thinking that I should be journaling this journey once again.

I have decided to finally put into words the struggles, joys, lows and knowledge I gained from it all. It won’t be in the order of how it all happened, there will be humor and tears and I must warn you now, there will be talk of miracles.

Over all, I simply hope to share some of the incredible things that happened along the way. In letting you look into the trials and tribulations of living with cancer, I hope you get some treasured nugget of hope, encouragement or knowledge of what this disease is like.

Feel free to ask questions. Don’t be shy. I’m happy to share…..