CHAPTER 1: One Last Treatment
September 4, 2014
152 pounds. 120 minutes. 2 months. 1 last treatment.
In the land of no seasons, 300 days of sunshine, and endless traffic, the Southern California morning brought a fall-filled crisp to the air. Wind and rain from the previous day dissipated the smog that normally weighs heavy on the city. Wet days in Los Angeles are unusual. They are the days locals grumble about everyone else’s inability to operate a motor vehicle. The best days in LA are the days after a rain, when the mountains crisply show their beauty, breaths freshen, moods shift, and people smile. These are the great days, when it’s easy to feel invincible and hard to see anything otherwise.
I was twenty-eight years old and working as a delivery driver for a local beverage company, driving an eye-catching, bright blue branded van all around town delivering cases of flavored water to the owner’s closest relationships. It was a Friday. On Fridays I had four deliveries. In my company polo and khaki shorts, I loaded seventy cases, flipped the radio to the tune of ’90s hip-hop, and pulled out of the storage facility. First turn, cases flew everywhere. I had forgotten to strap them down. Again. I believe that’s “shaken, not stirred.”
What was great about my job wasn’t solely the fact I attracted the ladies in my charmingly colored creepy van, but the fact that I could live a life as an artist and still survive without having to wait another table. Being able to leave the flashers on in a loading zone while going in for an audition is a major plus in this city. And reciting lines while walking through a cubicle-filled office building with an eight-case loaded dolly proved to be an effective (and popular) memorization technique. On this particular Friday, I had one personal stop at the end of my route. Today, the van would be parked on the residential streets of the UCLA campus, just behind the medical center. It was infusion day.
Work clothes to suit to work clothes to gym clothes to work clothes again. The van was my Clark Kent to Superman’s phone booth. Except I was in the back of a windowless van, falling over while struggling to get a pant leg around each foot and working up an oxygen-eating sweat. Today was work clothes to comfortable patient wear. In my world, that meant my favorite sweats and a hoodie, the most comfortable combo on this piece of Southern California earth. As the side door slid open and I burst out in a panic for fresh air, a pair of class-destined students screamed and split directions as they ran away in horror. With that, I was on my way to another appointment.
Walking past the campus dorms revived memories of my carefree years at Auburn University. Construction ahead closed the sidewalk, forcing me to cross the street. The sight of a crew pouring concrete gave me a flash of my family, generations of construction men passing in my mind’s eye. A few distracted steps later, I came back to reality in front of a closed restaurant. I stopped. Thoughts of my time waiting tables moved through my mind as I looked into the dark, empty space. Focus pulled to my reflection in the front window. It was as if my life was reflecting back to show me this rail-thin, weakening man.
Thoughts of the apparition carried me to the front of the UCLA medical center. As white jackets and blue scrubs passed, so did a forever feeling. Here I was, once again. Back in this place. With a deep breath and a reassuring smile, reality sank in. Not one person, other than the staff, likes hospitals. They are cold and scary places, filled with waiting and uncertainty, sadness and the harshest truths. My reality was that it was time for another treatment.
The door opened into a quietly quick-flowing space filled with a receptionist’s desk to the right, a few vacant seats to the left, nurse’s stations leading to other rooms along the side, and a line of sectioned-off, divider-separated treatment spaces overlooking a beautifully landscaped courtyard. I was there because of my Crohn’s disease, and the treatment was an infusion of Remicade. Treatment three of a scheduled six. In the times prior, the four-recliner section was all mine. “We like to keep patients going through different situations separate, for respect,” a nurse once told me. This wasn’t a space for just people with Crohn’s. Cancer and chemo were the majority. On this particular day it was busier than normal, and while waiting, watching the station being cleaned and prepared, my mind again drifted.
I was in front of the hospital, a month and a half ago. The first infusion. A little over three years to the day after nearly dying, and I was on my way to another medication. Another form of treatment. Still living the same life. Still following the same routine. Still indulging in the same habits. Still living with Crohn’s disease. Scared? A little. Uncertain? Fully. I had gone through a lot and put others through a lot, so I had decided not to share with anyone when my infusions would take place. At that very moment, I wished I had. With a deep breath and thoughts of the past pounding, I moved one leg reluctantly in front of the other. Time slowed. The elevator doors closed. The floors rose. The corner turned. The door approached. The knob reached for itself. When suddenly, a voice came from behind.
“Hey! You walked right past me, you dummy!”
She was there. She came anyway. How did she know the day and time? Didn’t matter. My heart rose and my face swelled. The love of my life had put her life on hold. “Thank you for coming, babe,” I said as she stood there with her endearing smile, my favorite chocolate, a magazine, and a reassuring hug. If she only knew how alive her touch felt that day. How truly grateful I was to have her there.
“You think I was really going to let you do this alone?”
I’ve never wanted to be a burden to anyone. Unfortunately, too often I was. I’ve also always held everything in, creating isolation and refusing help. Mad, yet never fully understanding why. But people do show up. Learning to see that, accept it, and let them in was something I had yet to understand. She showed up. For treatment one and for treatment two.
Unfortunately, on this particular Friday, treatment three, her work would not allow that surprise. At the same time, this wasn’t the unknown anymore. It wasn’t scary and the uncertainty had faded. This was the next phase of my existence. Alone or not.
“Mr. Godsey. We’re ready for you.”
Over I walked and into the recliner I climbed. Settling in and looking up revealed a woman in her midfifties sitting in the adjacent recliner. She was receiving an infusion as well, chemotherapy. Her second bout of breast cancer. In fact, today was her last treatment. The cancer came back and she had fought it off yet again. With her infectiously inspirational personality, it was obvious why.
The nurse wiped my arm. “Ohhhhh.” She perked up as if I just gave her a meltingly suave look. “You have great—”
Here we go again. “I know, I know. I have great veins.” An industry-accepted excitement for the nursing community. To that, she started the drip and set the clock.
Two hours of thoughts and confusing outcomes were happily interrupted by a soft voice from that adjacent recliner.
“What are you healing from today?” Her smile invited anxiety’s relief and a support for my growing lonely feeling. Our conversation moved into our battles and survivals. Family and work. Our stories and surgeries. We talked strength and faith. Emotions and truth. Food and lifestyle. She was an amazingly honest woman with good values and a deep appreciation for the day she was given. The kind of person you remember.
Through a great conversation’s swift passage, her timer rang and the nurse unhooked her. She rolled down her sleeve and that was it. Into forever it would have to be. Her last treatment was over. The lady had beaten cancer twice and was quitting her job. She was finally going to focus on helping others through a nonprofit she had always been a part of but never fully committed to. She was also looking forward to appreciating every day with her grandchildren. Gathering herself, she picked up her sweater, turned back, and looked at me with her bold green eyes of strength.
“You’ll find your way through this. Stay willing.”
And with that lasting thought, our paths divided.
For that last hour, I sat there and thought about her while consuming the free chips and apple juice. I say ‘free’ because the hospital so nicely provided them. On some bill, they were probably several thousands of dollars. The flowers were landscaped to perfection, perfectly grown and shaped. Outside of that minor, distracted thought, everything the woman said started to sink in, although most of it wouldn’t make sense until years later. I walked into that place, again prepared to tackle it alone, and again, life had put someone there. It does that, when you’re available to see it.
“Beep, beep, beep.”
Like the horrific sound of a code blue panicking in my ear, the treatment was over. The nurse unhooked me.
“We’ll see you in six weeks, sweetie!”
Halleluiah. I made it. Staying strong and following the prescribed path. Now, back to my normal existence as a starving artist. Polos, auditions, and water deliveries. Living to the fullest what any late-twenty-year-old believes life to be. Enough experience to enjoy the days but never really understanding the implications of the life being led. But who does until you’ve led it?
Over the next couple of days my dream of finally being healthy vanished. My body began to ache and weaken. I developed a rash on the right side of my torso that quickly expanded from the spine to the belly button. By day three, the pain stretched from my right shoulder to my foot. Extremely concerned, I called my doctor’s office and scheduled an emergency appointment with the gastroenterologist.
Arriving at the nurse’s station and showing them the rash, speculation formed around shingles, a highly contagious disease that immediately made the world back away from exposure. All I cared about was getting medicine to relieve the excruciating pain, not the bubble-boy treatment that was already much too familiar to this battered body. The rash itched severely and hurt with every breath, scratch, and shift of clothing. Shortly after being quarantined, the doctor came in. She examined and confirmed it was a terrible case of shingles.
“I knew you would probably get shingles.”
“Shingles are very common with this medicine.”
Well, that was news to me. This was the first time shingles had ever been mentioned. The commercials always show the elderly, not a twenty-eight-year-old. I was so confused. How could this happen? Why didn’t they tell me this was a possibility? A normal case of shingles, ok, I could maybe handle that. A terrible case of shingles, I’m not happy. A terrible case of shingles on top of everything I had already gone through? Terrified. I felt lied to, deceived.
“I’m going to push back your infusions until this clears up and then we’ll continue with the final three.”
Wait a second. I have to take medicine to clear up a reaction that the other medicine caused, then go back to the infusion medicine again? Healing one section of my intestine or not, what was this doing to my body? A million questions filled my mind through every word she spoke from then on. Slowly coming into focus was the realization of why I had chosen to go forward with the treatments in the first place. Slowly, I had been justifying a way to continue on with my lifestyle. Until she spoke the last words I ever remember her saying.
“There’s a good chance the shingles will come back in the future. But we need to stay on the medicine. It’s the only way for full remission.”
That’s when it hit me. My past, the lady, the doctors all flashed through my mind. After decades of suffering, it finally became clear. The dots connected. Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder. Meaning my immune system had been compromised. If I was taking medicine to control the disease, and the medicine was, in turn, weakening my immune system even further to the point where a disease that normally lies dormant until the twilight years of life, then what comes next? Something I probably can’t come back from.
Two months it took to heal from those shingles. Two months of agony and thoughts about how to finally put control into my own hands.
Me: “How did you do it?”
Her: “Beat cancer twice?”
Her: “If you want to heal, you have to believe you can, have a great support system and faith in every day from here forward.”
Her words echoed, and that was my…
1 last treatment