Friday, July 2, 2010

Stayin' Alive

One of the songs playing lately on the soundtrack that loops endlessly in my brain has been “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. I close my eyes and visualize John Travolta strutting his disco king stuff to the high-pitched warbling of Barry, Maurice, and the other brother.

Aye-aye-aye-aye, stain’ alive…”

Staying alive has been on my mind because Verna’s oncologist told us last Tuesday that we should contact hospice.

“Are you saying this is the beginning of the end?” we asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Now, I don’t know how long we’re talking about. Could be a few months, two or three, but we just don’t know.”

I tried to pose a few more questions, but the words came haltingly as the tears welled in my eyes. I looked over at Verna in her hospital bed and she was also crying.

So we cried, tried to breath, and cried some more as the reality of the doctor’s words seeped into our consciousnesses. The cancer support manager, who no longer even cares for breast cancer patients but sees Verna because she adores her, asked Verna to share her understanding of what the oncologist had said.

“But I’m not ready to die,” Verna said after she answered the cancer support manager. “I have a lot left to do.”

“And that’s OK,” said the manager. “But sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard we want to live.”
Verna mentioned our renewal of wedding vows, planned for July 24, the wedding of our nephew (for a date to be determined), and the wedding ceremony of one of our closest friends in late October.

As the anxiety and anguish of the moment dissipated and we retreated to the comfortable confines of sarcasm and dark humor, I said we were definitely having the renewal of vows ceremony. “I can always do it alone.”

But I am pretty sure Verna will be there. Physically there, that is. Maybe that’s the hardest part of this latest body blow, the highly unnerving uncertainty. There is no way for anyone to predict how long Verna has left to live. All her doctor can offer is, “We don’t know.” On the other hand, not knowing is less definite.

The latest chapter in our journey began late last Sunday night just before midnight. Verna’s full body pain had been escalating for a few hours before she finally declared, “We need to go to the hospital.” She was unable to move. She later said, “It feels as if my legs are in vise clamps.”

So I quickly wrote Miguel a note that I’d be back soon (though I doubted he or Maya would wake up) and drove Verna to the hospital, which is 2 miles away. After she was admitted to the emergency room and we met her nurse, Glen, a Filipino native we’ve known from previous visits, I returned home and tried to fall asleep.

Monday was a nightmare. Verna was sedated in a fog of narcotics, wracked with pain. She mumbled half sentences, had trouble swallowing, and her normally golden glow was pale. We met her hospitalist, the doctor in charge of her case while on the 5th floor, and a palliative care nurse, who offered suggestions to further control Verna’s pain. The cancer support manager and a Reverend with the spiritual support team visited and quickly arranged a single room for Verna.

I left to feed the kids and came back later. The nurse was just hooking up Verna to an IV blood transfusion when I split for the evening around 8:45. I was seriously afraid that Kaiser was going to call me in the middle of the night to say Verna had died. She looked that ill.

I dragged myself out of bed a 6 am and hopped on the Life Cycle. I stuffed the iPod ear buds in and opened my book as I pedaled into a relative state of escape and relief. Suddenly the phone rang. The caller ID read ‘Kaiser’, and I gulped. It was Verna.

“I feel much better,” she blurted out as I finally started breathing again. “The blood transfusion worked.”

Maybe Dracula and his ilk were on to something. The transformation in 10 hours was miraculous. The hospitalist had explained to us that if the transfusion worked it would provide lubrication for her bones, which were rubbing up against each other and causing the intense pain, and re-energize her anemic body.

By Tuesday afternoon we were ready to host Verna’s oncologist and the cancer support manager, both of whom shed nearly as many tears as we did. The oncologist explained that hospice would make it easier for Verna to manage her pain and avoid returning to the hospital.

“And we’re going to put you on a low dose chemotherapy pill because we’re not giving up,” the oncologist added. “I would love for you to prove me wrong by living a lot longer.”
So Verna’s challenge is anything but simple. She needs to stall death by staying alive. Somehow I know and feel she’s up to the challenge.

Aye-aye-aye-aye, stayin’ alive…”


  1. I have been away so only just now read this. Believe me, I'm singing right along with you, Steve. Love you all, Jan