Essays

“I’m Not Here For Oncology”

When it comes to illness, one person's disease is another person's good luck.

As I walk up to the reception window, I lift my hand to sign my name, and even that sends a jolt of electricity into my abdomen. I gasp and drop the pen back onto the clipboard.

“Name?” the receptionist asks, her eyebrows halfway up her forehead.

“Kelly Roell,” I mumble.

“I’ll need your insurance card and drivers license.”

I fumble through my purse at my side, drop a pack of gum on the floor and stare at it. I couldn’t get it even if I wanted to. I hand the lady my cards, beads of sweat pricking my upper lip.

“We’ll call you in a minute,” she says over her shoulder and I lower myself, gratefully, into the closest chair next to an older lady reading a Women’s Day.

My C-section incision is still inflamed, remnants of the MRSA infection I picked up in the hospital after my first son’s birth. Pressing against the jagged scar is a football-sized hematoma, a massive clot of blood nestled in between the tissues, the result of a serious bleed after a surgery nobody wanted.

Because really, a surgery with my illness is kind of a big risk.

I have an antithrombin III deficiency, a blood clotting disorder. When I was 23, just one year married and on the pill, a blood clot passed through my heart and settled into a pulmonary artery, very nearly killing me.

Hormones in the birth control pill exacerbate the problem. As does pregnancy. So, when I first saw those astonishing blue lines on the pregnancy test, I called my hematologist and he showed me the ins and outs of injecting myself twice daily in the belly with blood thinners. He cautioned that when I delivered the baby, I should do everything in my power to avoid a C-section because of the amount of blood thinners that would be coursing through my veins.

My heart sank when I realized what I was going to have to do to keep myself and this baby alive.

I nodded in agreement, but felt my heart sink when I realized what I was going to have to do to keep myself and this baby alive.

I wince as I shift in my seat, cradling my abdomen as if it were the infant I’ve left at home with my mom. My phone buzzes and I check the screen. It’s a text from my husband asking how everything is going. I stifle a wave of nausea from the pain, and send a quick “Okay,” in reply. My breasts are swollen and leaking milk, and for the nineteenth time in the past six minutes, I curse my sleep-deprived brain for forgetting to bring a breast pump. Beside me, the older lady sets her magazine down, then pats my hand.

“I’m sorry you’re here,” she says, sympathy in her bright eyes.

The room we’re in is dotted with patients waiting to be connected to tubes hanging from bags of mysterious drugs. This common area is for both hematology patients like me, and oncology patients like the guy sitting with his back to the door, gaunt eyes absently watching CNN on the TV. I realize she must think I have cancer.

The pain is so intense and my exhaustion is so complete, I don’t correct her mistake.

“Kelly Roell?” A nurse in baby blue scrubs stands at the waiting room door, her face expectant.

I grit my teeth, struggle to my feet, and take halting steps toward the nurse.

“Good luck,” the older woman says, and I offer her a grimace in return.

Author Kelly Coon.

The nurse leads me back and checks my vitals, then deposits me in a phlebotomy room, where someone will take my blood to make sure it’s thin enough not to kill me, but not thin enough to add to the massive hematoma in my belly. My breasts tingle and two round circles of wetness appear on my shirt. My milk has let down. I’m too tired to care about covering up.

A scuffling sound brings my eyes to the door. A skeletal woman is scooting into the room, one foot painfully dragging after another, a pair of jeans hanging on bony hips. Her skin is sallow. Her bald head reflects the florescent lights on the ceiling.

She settles into the chair across from me, drawing ragged breaths from her efforts. Yellow eyes lock with mine. “You’re young,” she says.

She’s younger than I am. Maybe 23 or 24.

Shocked by the severity of her illness, I only nod.

“You’re still pretty,” she rasps. “That’ll change.”

I stutter out the only reply I can think of. “I’m not here for oncology.”

“Lucky you,” she whispers, staring into my eyes as the nurse bustles in, pulling open doors and taking out tubes to draw the woman’s blood.

“Lucky you,” she whispers… [but] I don’t feel lucky. Not at all.

I turn away, guilt making me feel sicker than I really am. Because, no matter how sick she is, I don’t feel lucky. Not at all. My guts are wracked with throbbing pain, I look like I’ve been hit by a truck, and even though I know that by anyone’s standards my life is rosy compared to hers, the word “lucky” isn’t the word I’d choose to describe how I feel.

Words like “dispirited” and “horrible” come closer to the truth.

The nurse finishes her routine and the young woman shuffles from the room, each agonizing scrape of her shoes against the tile making me flinch.

The nurse comes back in, sits on a swivel stool, and runs a finger down my chart.

“Is she dying?” I ask quietly. My question stills her hand. She lays the chart down and reaches for a pair of latex gloves.

“Everyone’s dying,” she says. “Some just faster than others.” Her eyes meet mine for the briefest of moments, and I take a breath as she ties a rubber tube around my upper arm. “You ready?” she says as she holds the needle over the inside of my elbow.

I nod once, breathe out, and she plunges the needle in. Red liquid spurts from my arm into a vial.

She nods as it fills with my blood. “That right there, that’s how you know you’re still alive. If you’re alive, you’re gonna bleed. Maybe it hurts, but you still got blood running through your veins.” She finishes up, bandages my arm, and guides me to an exam room to wait for the doctor.

As I sit shivering in bleached whiteness, I pick at the Band-Aid sealing a cotton ball to my fresh wound and think about the blood she took from my arm. My traitorous, destructionist blood. For the past nine months, I’ve thought about its murderous properties every time I stuck a needle into my belly. It seemed like its primary purpose was to kill me from being too clotted or too thin at all the wrong moments. I’d wished my blood disorder away, prayed God would take it from me, and bemoaned the fact that every time I’d want to have a baby, I’d have to give myself shot after shot after shot and be filled with the constant worry that maybe this time, I’d bleed out completely after birth.

But, as the nurse said, at least I had the blood. I could still bleed. I still had that red pulsing liquid running like a river through my veins. And, to top it off, I had a baby boy waiting for me at home as my swollen, leaking breasts could attest, and a husband on the other side of my text messages, asking if everything was okay.

I had life. And that young woman calling me pretty was very nearly at the end of hers.

I would hurt, but I would live.

I choked down my tears as the doctor walked through the door.

Her face stayed in my thoughts as my hematologist asked about the pain. He prodded and poked,  questioned and listened, then sent me on my way with reassurances that I would be fine and all would be well.

I would hurt, but I would live.

As I crossed the threshold back into the waiting room and headed toward the elevator doors, the man who’d been watching CNN was called toward oncology. In a few moments, he’d be strung up to those mysterious machines promising hope and, for some, the chance at a new life.

But for me, for now, I had it already. And with it, certainly some pain. But, for the first time since I found out I had this disease and all the nasty stuff that comes with it, I felt like the words of the dying woman were true.

I was lucky.


Photo at top of article published under Creative Commons license by David Jones.