Starting in first grade, I would read the newspaper with my breakfast each morning. I loved knowing what was going on in the world. Mostly, I loved the format of news stories. First, there was a sensational headline that hooked you, next the lede delivered the bare facts of the story, and then the rest would unfold fleshing out the details and correcting the assumptions you had automatically made reading the lede.
If this were a newspaper story, the lede would be:
After showing up at the ER yesterday afternoon with symptoms consistent with appendicitis, doctors diagnosed 42-year old Jason McBride with a gut infection, a small nodule on his lung, an enlarged heart, and a tumor on his kidney. The medical team cannot rule out cancer.
Two or three paragraphs down, readers would learn that:
While doctors also cannot rule out the possibility that the tumor is benign without a biopsy, no one on the medical team has seen a tumor in this location that wasn’t malignant.
And so, I sit in my hospital room, being treated for a gut infection, existing in a Schrödinger’s cat-like state, simultaneously having cancer and not having cancer.
I came to the ER yesterday afternoon thinking I had appendicitis. I had all the symptoms. My gut hurt in the right place, I was dry heaving, and I had no appetite. Because of the miracle of modern health record technology, the triage team and the doctor noticed that I had been in the ER four and a half years ago for a hernia. They assumed my current complaints must be related to that prior condition.
Their records did not show that I had a successful out-patient hernia surgery four and a half years ago on my left side, the opposite side that was hurting now. Because of their crack triage deduction skills, I was afforded the privilege of waiting in the part of the ER where they put people that they don’t think are sick enough to be in the ER.
It is unironically called the “Fast Track” area.
When I finally got a room, it was the kind with a shitty parody of a dentist’s chair and not a bed. Once I established myself in the chair, it lurched to the side as if it wanted to throw me onto the floor, but it no longer had the strength. The pod I was on is full of rooms with these chairs. The philosophy behind the industrial design of these chairs is to make you uncomfortable, and to make you think twice about coming to the ER the next time.
The shitty chair in my room was broken. The doctor couldn’t perform an abdominal exam because the chair couldn’t recline. He called a nurse into troubleshoot the situation.
I joked they should make sure it’s plugged in and then try and reboot. They didn’t laugh.
I moved to another room with a fully-functional shitty chair where the good doctor poked and prodded and declared it wasn’t a hernia.
I had now been in the ER for four hours.
I was prescribed pain meds and anti-nausea medicine. Labs and imaging were ordered. The nurses and the doctor seemed kinder. I had proved my worth, or at least the worth of my illness, and I was heading towards a diagnosis. Everyone started treating me differently — treating me like I was sick enough to be in the ER.
A transportation tech moved me to another pod of the ER and a new room — one with a bed!
I got an IV, and the nurse pushed through some opioid pain killer.
The room went black. I was hot. I wanted to tell the nurse that I was going to pass out, but I couldn’t speak. My chest was burning. Why was it burning? When would it stop? Why can’t I see or speak?
Then I lost control of my body. I could feel my arms flailing. My left more than my right. I was about to fade out. I felt my wife’s touch on my head.
“Stay with me,” she said.
There was no panic in her voice. It was not a plea. It was a command.
I compiled. I willed myself back. I got back control of my arms, and mentally cut through the blackness.
My heart had plummeted to a precarious 34 beats per minute. That resting heart rate would be fine for someone who ran marathons in every month with 31 days or who practiced parkour at the Mt. Everest Basecamp, but it was deadly for a fatty like me. Officially I had a vasovagal response with seizure-like activity.
Unofficially, I had a bad trip.
I got the best care after that.
I had an EKG and two types of CT scans.
The test results were not promising. The doctor in his best Maury Povich impression told me I didn’t have appendicitis. After the studio audience gasped, he then revealed a surprise.
The tests found inflammation in an area of my small intestine called the terminal ileum, a small node on my lung, possible signs of heart disease, and a tumor on my kidney. My doctor let me know that he probably shouldn’t say anything specific about the tumor, but that it would be incredibly rare for it not to be cancer.
On TV, they would’ve cut to a commercial. I was admitted to the hospital.
The only way to know for sure about the tumor is to have it removed and biopsied. It’s a simple procedure, usually done in an outpatient surgery center. But, it won’t happen until next week at the earliest. First, I have to get my gut infection under control. Once I’m free from the hospital, I have to follow up with a urologist.
I’m usually an irrational optimist. That’s why I write. But, when every doctor and nurse who sees you tells you to make sure and follow up on the “kidney thing”, it’s hard not to assume the worst. They all make meaningful eye contact as they talk about I can almost read their thoughts. They are silently hoping that I’m smart enough to read into the context of the serious warning they are giving me because professionally they can’t use the “C” word in this circumstance.
It’s also disturbing to have medical experts call your tumor, the “kidney thing”. Why are they avoiding the technical term, “tumor”? The CT scan was clear that it was a tumor, not a cyst, growth, or mass. The CT report even used the word “cancer”. I’m not supposed to know that. But, what kind of writer would I be if I couldn’t get information I wasn’t supposed to have?
Nobody can officially call my “kidney thing” cancer until they pull it out of my body. I have no idea if the surgery will resolve the kidney thing. I know a lot about cancer. I’ve seen both my parents battle cancer for years. My dad is losing his decades-long fight with cancer right now.
I don’t know anything about my cancer. I don’t even know if I do have cancer. There’s some remote statistical possibility that it’s not. But, that’s not the way the cosmic forces at play in my life operate. These forces are all about the story.
Going to the ER and coming out with cancer is a helluva story. A benign cyst is too dull to be in my script.
So, I wait for the rusty wheels of the medical bureaucracy to turn.
I’ve got shit to do. I’ve got stories to tell, children to raise, and a wife to grow old with.
I’m scared as hell and determined as fuck. I get sweary when I’m nervous.
I also have a list of other specialists I have to make contact with in addition to the urologist.
The “kidney thing” may be the most urgent of my medical problems, but it may end up not even being the most serious one.
I sit here in my hospital bed, waiting. Waiting to be released from the hospital. Waiting to swing into action so I can wait some more to find out what my diagnosis is.
I feel like a boxer sitting in the locker room, deep in the bowels of a venue, before a championship bout waiting for the cue that the announcer is ready and that I can march down to the ring with my loyal support team. The raucous crowd is a distant hum because I’m intensely focused on what I can control.
I have no idea what kind of medical monstrosity I’m about to do battle with. It doesn’t matter. I’m tired of waiting. I’m ready to fight.