Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I remember the words "giant" and "bone" and "tumor." I remember looking at fuzzy black and white X-ray films (fuzzy-looking to me anyway), and being told that the bone in the lower part of my right tibia was the thickness of an eggshell: a fracture would pose severe risks. The deformity was ever so slightly visible from the outside; there was a softly swollen, bowed look to the outer line of my leg above the ankle. I thought of my ballet mistress, Madame S., and her parting assessment of "thick ankles" when I left the pre-professional dance world of NCSA (see previous posts on dancing). I suddenly longed for the luxury of earlier days when I could still tell myself that anything wrong might be fixed with paraffin wax and Ace bandages. Instead, I sat in the office of one of NYC's top orthopedic surgeons—a near deity with whom an appointment was worth its weight in gold (we obtained one through a man named Stanley G., who worked with my father at Pan Am; cost was no issue then, as these were still the days of full-coverage health insurance, premiums paid entirely by the company).  I was sixteen years old, the perfect example of a hostile patient. I—a girl trained to move gracefully, barely displacing the air around me—tossed the urgently proffered crutches to the floor, flat-out refusing to use them. A few days later, I found myself on York Avenue, about to pass through the entrance of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, clinical arm of the city's (possibly the country's or the world's) most renowned cancer center. I didn't process the word "cancer"; I was in such a murky fog of loathing (the situation, my traitorous body) that Sloan-Kettering meant nothing to me. In retrospect, I suppose the medical assumption must have been that we were dealing with malignancy. Thankfully, the pathology reports proved otherwise, but the Sloan-Kettering experience was nonetheless difficult. Here is what I remember: Being sixteen, angry, and terrified the night before my scheduled surgery; the morning of the procedure, I remember the sting of an alcohol swab followed directly by a needle inserted to open a vein for my IV hookup. I remember an iodine wash on my leg, also being asked to remove all jewelry; whatever I had, I gave to my mother for safekeeping. I remember being wheeled on a gurney through a labyrinth of halls and tunnels that connected various parts of the hospital complex. Lying on my back under a thin blanket I watched the ceilings pivot in a dizzying succession of turns until I got to the operating room. I remember the anesthesiologist asking me to count backward from ten, and I don't remember how far I got. (I similarly do not remember, but was told by the surgeon later, that even in my unconscious state, I kept trying to get up off the operating table and that they had to hold me down.) I remember next a frantic bustling around me in the recovery room—the sound of beeping machines, urgent voices raised then lowered, the removal of defibrillation paddles from my chest. I remember thinking that I wished they had not bothered. I am ashamed of that thought now. I am also ashamed of how far I let myself sink into feelings of anger and self-pity during my two-week tenure as a pediatric in-patient. As horrible as my experience was, the only roommate I had was a girl of maybe ten years old: thin as a rail, bald from chemotherapy, and in need of bone marrow transplants to overcome her disease. Me? I had a benign tumor, bone grafting, searing pain and a life-threatening allergic reaction to the standard palliative solution of morphine and something called Visterol (spelling?). But otherwise, I was fine. In comparison. Here are some other things I remember: I was in pain so intense, I begged for an injection—me, the one who'd go to great lengths to avoid shots—rather than wait for the effect of tablets. The food was unappetizing but my parents brought me pizza and sandwiches. I was embarrassed by the need for a bedpan, since I was not allowed to get out of bed for any reason, and at sixteen this felt like the worst humiliation imaginable. My surgeon came into the room several times, trailing a group of students or interns; I reminded them all with an acid tone that I had a name—the surgeon was in the habit of announcing, without greeting or introduction, "Here we have a tibial blah blah such-and-such," naming me by body part, condition, and procedure only. I remember that for two weeks I was no longer a person but a specimen, a case to be studied, a leg that housed a tumor, nothing more. (I should say I don't believe this is indicative of the hospital today—it was an insensitivity belonging to a specific person and perhaps to an era of medical care in general, not to the place.) I remember thinking that time had stopped, that I was in purgatory if not in hell, and that I'd never get out. I remember turning away with dismissive hostility a hospital chaplain who made his rounds (or whom my parents asked to visit). I was close to atheism in those years. I remember a long length of wide, strong gauze tied around my right foot, the ends trailing like a leash I was supposed to grab and pull several times a day to maintain articulation of the ankle. And I remember, finally, that oozing bandages ceased being replaced and that I was at last taken to a room where a man wrapped the length of my entire right leg, toes to top of thigh, in a fiberglass cast (non weight-bearing) that would stay with me for nine long months. With that, I was on my way home.


  1. Vistaril. What a harrowing experience! How very brave of you to go through all of that during your vulnerable teen years. I was terrified of shots too--till childbirth...

  2. You know, I always think that "brave" is when you have a choice and you choose the difficult or more dangerous way in pursuit of something better (for your own life, or for others, for humanity). I wasn't brave. I didn't really have a choice. I just went through it, and not gracefully. But it did make me a stronger person in the end, I think. At least, it's helped give me more perspective and empathy. And, yeah, the only other time I ever asked for a shot in my life was also childbirth. Lamaze went right out the window—didn't feel like being brave then, either.