“What you do speaks so well, you don’t have to say a word.”
I’ve been in the hospital a couple of days, I think; I don’t really know. The morphine my doctors have been giving me for the pain has kicked in, zapping my short-term memory. The days blend together.
I can’t think about anything, really, other than the disconcerting news I heard a couple of days ago—or however many days it’s been.
The news arrived just after nightfall, on December 26, 2001. It was delivered to me quickly, coldly, by an emergency room doctor I had just met.
“We examined your blood,” he said, giving no sign of the wrecking ball headed my way, “and we think it might be leukemia.”
Before those words, I fully expected this gray-haired man in a white coat to tell me to go home and sleep it off. “It” being the severe flu-like symptoms I’d been experiencing the previous three days.
Instead, he was telling me to say goodbye—to the life I had known, the one I had worked so hard for. The one back in Michigan.
The news still hasn’t sunk in yet.
After all I’ve been through as a kid?
* * * * *
When I was nine years old, I had a tumor removed from my spine. Seventy-five weeks of chemotherapy and full-body radiation followed. Only then was I finally deemed cured. It was a tough road, one that wasn’t made any easier by me being the only fourth-grader in my elementary school with no hair—kids can be cruel—but at least it came to an end.
I wonder how far this detour will take me off my life’s path? I’m just 29, and was on my way to becoming a successful, respected journalist. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now.
All I know about leukemia—doctors are calling it ALL, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia—is what I learned from a story I wrote more than a year ago about a boy who had it. He had a different type of leukemia, but I’m guessing they’re all in the same league: PDBD, or potentially deadly blood diseases.
Anders Nieters was a 14-year-old cyclist—15, actually, but his father, Jim, had lost track because Anders’ many months of treatments had blended together, kind of like my days now.
For Jim, counting birthday candles quickly gave way to blood counts, pill counts, and counting the rare days his only son was out of the hospital. And it had to be a full day—24 hours. Ambulance rides in the middle of the night didn’t count.
While I think about Anders, and wonder how he’s doing today, I watch a pair of nurses walk into my room.
One comes over to my bed and, without saying a word, lifts my arm up by the wrist. She starts reading the information on my hospital ID band to the other nurse, who’s standing across the room, staring at the label on a bag of blood she’s cradling like a newborn baby. A moment later, the nurses repeat the process. This time the one carrying the blood reads aloud while the other stares at my wristband.
The more they ignore me, the more helpless I feel.
“Why do you keep reading my name?” I blurt out.
After a pause—as if they were shocked I even have a voice—the one holding my wrist responds.
Without removing her eyes from my ID band, she says, calmly, as if she’s telling me the time, “Because you can die if you get the wrong blood.”
Is that all? I can die if I get the wrong blood.
What do you mean I can die if I get the wrong blood?
Is she serious? How can she say something like that? Be so nonchalant about it? I’ve never been more terrified in my life.
I’m having a blood transfusion, a standard procedure, I’m told. But the sight of someone else’s beet-red blood seeping into my veins is more than I can bear. Soon, I feel a horrible metallic taste, which nearly makes me sick. It reminds me of when I was a kid and swallowed my own blood, either on purpose or accident, and first experienced that taste. Now it’s different, because I can feel it throughout my entire body—and it’s not my blood!
The nurse who told me I could die checks the drip coming through the IV tube. She flicks it with her finger, then lifts the extra tubing off the floor, coils it like a garden hose and sets it on my bed. A moment later, she and the other nurse walk out of the room, neither offering a timeframe for when this madness will end. I am on edge throughout the transfusion, which lasts nearly three hours.
When it finally does end—mercifully without incident—I give thanks. The most thanks I’ve ever given.
* * * * *
The morphine keeps coming. So does the chemotherapy, which is so powerful it requires nurses to wear blue rubber gloves, a white mask, and a yellow protective robe when administering it to me. Doctors, dressed in the same attire (only their coats are blue), have been ordering this cocktail of drugs for me all day in hopes of ridding me of the diseased blood cells that have taken over my body and delivered me back here.
“Here” being the same university research hospital I left two decades ago, vowing never to return again.
I’ve never actually said those words aloud—that I would never return to this place—but I hold true to them now more than ever.
I begin to stare, forlorn, through the window of my tenth-floor hospital room at the city I grew up in. It’s a dark, cloudy day in Los Angeles, which reminds me even more of the unpleasant memories that reside here. I tried so hard to escape this city.
I thought I had escaped a few years earlier, when I became a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was the fall of 1998.
I’ve done well since the move, graduating for one. For a long time, I thought that only happened to other people. I also found a new and exciting career as a sports journalist. That’s another huge plus, considering the pair of short-lived careers I had back here—computer animator at Sony Pictures, and rock-and-roll bass player in Hollywood—only inspired me to return to school. (Dreams, I found, die hard on Hollywood Boulevard.)
Everything looked so promising after the move, my new life back in Michigan.
Now it seems to be slipping away as quickly as the chemotherapy and liquid food dripping through my IV tubes.
Before I have a chance to recover from what that nurse told me before my transfusion, I’m blindsided by the sight of another pair of nurses entering my room.
Sadly, yes. One is holding a bag of blood. And the only difference from the first one it seems is that the nurses are different.
The results, however, are the same: they begin reading; I begin fretting.
I can die if I get the wrong blood. I can die if I get the wrong blood …
As the words ring out in my head, my vision suddenly goes askew. The nurse in charge of the bag of blood no longer appears to be cradling a baby, but rather a sidearm machine gun she’s about to unload on me at close range.
What I don’t realize in this state of panic is that nurses always follow this meticulous procedure to make sure the patient gets the correct blood type. I’m not being singled out, or threatened, even though it feels that way.
Still, I can’t stop thinking about those words.
“I CAN DIE IF I GET THE WRONG BLOOD!” I say to the nurses, and likely the entire wing of the oncology ward. “I had a transfusion yesterday! Nobody told me about another one. I don’t need another one. Get my doctors in here. Now!”
Before long, the room is filled with people.
My family members look on in silence as doctors and nurses check my records, verify my patient ID number, my blood type, and that of the blood in the bag. My mom and grandmother are here, seated in chairs by the window. And my friend, Rod, is beside me, sitting atop a rickety, fold-up cot he’s slept on since arriving here shortly after that first transfusion.
* * * * *
Rod came out immediately after hearing the news. He flew in from Michigan, just like I did a couple weeks ago for what was supposed to be a short vacation home. I remember telling him the news, and I didn’t have to be gentle with him like I did when I called my boss and girlfriend.
Rod is no stranger to difficult news: he endured a dozen surgeries during a four-year NFL career.
Rod, who I’ve known just six months, already has a lot to do with that promising life I’ve been working so hard for. He's been like a mentor to me, sharing everything he knows about teamwork, discipline, dedication, pride—everything he’s learned in football.
For now, however, Rod appears no different than the rest of the people in my hospital room: sitting there as calm as can be.
How can they be so calm?
Don’t they know I can die if I get the wrong blood?
“I don’t need a blood transfusion! No one told me I was going to get another one! GET OUT OF HERE WITH THAT BLOOD!”
I’ve now created such a stir in my agitated state that nobody is at ease.
As I continue my rant, I wonder when this sabotage will end. When will somebody tell me something? Include me in what’s going on?
Suddenly, Rod leaps to his feet, his 6-foot 4-inch, 300-pound frame now revealed in earnest.
“Everyone, clear the room!” he says in a deep, bellowing voice, pointing to the door. “I need to talk to him. Alone!”
Everyone looks stunned, but no one moves. After taking a good look at Rod, however, sensing his tension, they quickly scurry out. As the last person leaves, slowly closing the door from behind, I glance over at Rod.
He’s staring at me with daggers in his eyes, like a football coach about to berate a player for making a stupid move on the field.
“What’s wrong with you?” he says. “You have to trust what these doctors and nurses are doing. They’re here to help you.”
I don’t answer. I just swallow and take a breath for the first time since glancing over.
“More importantly,” Rod says, “you have to have faith in God. He is the only one in control of all this.”
Rod pauses, then leans in closer. What he says next is a demand, not a request.
“You have to get your head on straight!”
As his words hang in the air, Rod settles back into his cot. The lecture is over. For now.
Soon, everyone returns to the room.
They proceed slowly, cautiously, afraid to stir the easily roused giant. As they file back in, I pick a spot on the wall and don’t take my eyes off it. When the nurses begin reading the information on my ID band, I say nothing.
For the next three-plus hours, as the blood slowly disappears into my veins, I am oblivious to what’s going on around me. With my eyes peering at the wall, I think about what Rod has told me, along with the reason why he’s here.
Rod’s not here for his health.
He’s here for mine.