Reflections from the Chemo Ward

I have a very strange blood disease called Polycythemia Vera. It basically means I have too many red blood cells for my own good.

Those of you who know me have probably heard my story on how this happened, but the week after I graduated from IIT, I had a routine physical with my doctor, who happened to run a CBC (Complete Blood Count) and sent me on my way. My then-living grandmother greeted me at home as I pulled in the driveway, and said that the doctor wanted me to come back to the clinic right away. He said it is probably nothing, but he wanted to see me to clear up that what he thought was simply an anomaly of test results.

So I drove back to the clinic, the doctor ran the same test again, and it was no mistake. I literally had enough red blood cells for you and yo’ mama. When they did a phelobotomy (no, not a lobotomy…I had that years earlier), my blood came out the consistency of watery ketchup.

Ewww.

To make a very long story very short, after being poked and prodded with an ultrasound, a CT Scan, and the granddaddy of them all, a bone-marrow biopsy, a minor emotional breakdown due to a delay in the results wondering if I had a brain tumor, the doctors told me that I wasn’t really normal.

[Like I needed all those tests to determine that…]

I basically have a disease that every long distance athlete dreams of having.  Ever hear of blood doping in the news among endurance athletes?  I do that naturally.  The day after I ran the marathon a few years back, I was fine.  Really – no soreness, no stiffness, I was fine.  I ran 4 miles that Monday to loosen up and I was bored.

Everyone thought I wasn’t normal – they were right.

The treatment for my blood disease is actually quite simple – I have a unit of blood taken out every month that decreases my red blood cell count quite naturally. It’s sad, because they have to throw my blood away. I’m universal donor as well, and the fact that I go in once a month to give blood that is thrown away is depressing.

But, there are some fun parts. When I go, I tease my female friends by saying it’s my time of the month where I get bloody.

Ewww.

The other meaningful part for me is that I get to spend time in a chemotherapy ward. Since I’ve been going here for several years, I know my nurses and doctor fairly well. We joke and talk a lot.  Belinda is an older African American woman with six great-grandchildren – you’d never guess by looking at her.  Marcy has a daughter the same age as my first nephew, Luke, who we have swapped stories of cuteness, orneriness, arranged marriages, and sweetness over the years.  Carrie typically phlobotomizes me, and trains the new nurses on me because I’m pretty low maintenance, and they can mess up on me for the first time and I won’t holler.

We have a lot of fun.

But there is a serious undertone that can be felt when you enter a chemo ward.

How can you not when you see people with needles in their arms connected to drip bags on carts hanging around?

One woman I talked with has been fighting cancer on-and-off again for 15 years. I asked her how she dealt with it. She said she didn’t have much of a choice, really. She has three kids and wants to see them all graduate from high school, and to see her grandchildren.

One man I talked with was much more somber. He said his outlook didn’t look good, and he was wondering why God let this happen to him.

I told him I didn’t know either, but I asked to pray for him for healing.

I have no idea if anything happened to him or not.  I’d like to think something did, but I don’t know if I’ll ever know.

The chemo ward is an interesting place for me.  Everyone I am sitting beside has tubes feeding foreign objects entering their body trying to reduce cell division in order to prevent the death-bringning, malignant cancer.  I come to the chemo ward and have tubes inserted to take natural objects out of my body trying to control my overproduction of life giving red blood cells and have the overflow tossed away.

It’s ironic.

I feel like I don’t belong – because I know I’ll be back, and some of the others don’t.

I asked Carrie about this one day – about how hard her job is along these lines.  And she looked at me, and said, “Andy, it’s not about the ones we lose.  It’s about the ones we save.  But we know you’ll show up regardless; and so will I.”

I paused and thought about what Carrie said, because much of what it means in life is to show up during the times when it is most difficult.  Showing up at a chemo ward takes a brave person.  Administering treatment to cancer patients for a living takes a brave person. Telling someone they have cancer takes a brave person.

I think bravery and courage are far underrated in a society that is plagued with image management, self preservation, and political posturing for position.  The beauty of the chemo ward is that all of those things fade away and people are sitting with their loved ones, holding their hands, reading them stories, or just being with them in the midst of pain – who choose to show up, day after day.

It’s the beauty that rises out of the ashes.

It’s the new life that comes from the announcement of death.

It’s the realization of the beauty of life that comes when life seems so short.

It’s safe to say that I’ve learned as much there as I have in any training I’ve ever been a part of.

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1 Response to “Reflections from the Chemo Ward”


  1. 1 Aice October 7, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Andy, I have had PV since about 1987, diagnosed in 1993. There are things to learn about dealing with yourself to keep your body in good condition–anyway.

    1. If you drink at least a quart of liquid at phlebotomy time, it will keep away the “dreadful fatigue” that can follow and last several days. If that liquid is orange juice, it will not only replenish your system with water, but also zinc and Vitamin C. Both these nutrients will leave your body along with the iron you want to go via the phlebotomizing. Moreover, using this same “depletion logic”, I take a variety of nutritional supplements.

    2. There are a couple of good online support groups where you can learn from others with PV. I think the better one is MPD-SUPPORT-L@listserv.aol.com. I like it better because it does not censure comments although it will answer those the listowner thinks are wrong or out of line.


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