Thursday, June 12, 2014

Testing. Waiting.

This is the 7th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

Tuesday, October 8 - Wednesday, October 9
North Louisiana Medical Center

After the tumultuous week I had experienced, I felt that being hospitalized was a vacation. I wasn't experiencing any pain (thanks to Dilaudid, that nectar of the gods), I was sleeping like a baby, and people were actually trying to find out what was wrong with me.

First thing Tuesday morning, I met my surgeon for the first time - Dr. Byrnes. I was a bit confused as to why I needed a surgeon, but I decided to roll with it. He explained to me and Karen that in addition to the inflamed lymph nodes that were found on my CT Scan, there was also a small spot on my intestines. Getting a biopsy of that spot would help us nail down exactly what it was we were dealing with. He would put me to sleep and perform a biopsy of the top end of my small intestine. Essentially, just stick a camera down my throat and peek around. Fine by me. It was the easiest surgical procedure I've ever endured. Non-invasive, no side affects or pain. Plus I had Dilaudid anyway. Unfortunately, he couldn't get deep enough to find the spot in question. On to Plan B.

Cue ominous music

Plan B was a colonoscopy on Wednesday morning. Dr. Byrnes felt that our best chance of obtaining a biopsy of the spot was to try an "alternate" route. So late Tuesday afternoon, the sweetest little nurse in the world brought in two liter-sized bottles of crystal gravy. In her tender voice, she made clear that I had two hours to drink these two thick, salty beverages. "Two hours?" I thought to myself. "That's easy." 

It wasn't easy. 

I got the first one down relatively quickly. The nurse would peek her head in periodically and ask, "Everything okay?" Each time, I expressed my concern that this wasn't going to work. Each time, she chuckled and said, "Oh it'll work." Slowly, but surely, I knocked back the second bottle - with time to spare. And then I waited, and waited. "I don't think it's doing anything," I'd say. "Oh it'll work," the nurse would respond.

It worked. Again and again it worked. All night long it worked. By the time the nurses came on Wednesday morning to wheel me back into surgery, I felt like a pitiful marathon runner who finishes last place at the Olympics, lumbering into the stadium under the low murmur from the straggle of fans still hanging around. Completely exhausted, devoid of energy, fluid, or passion. "Somebody inject some drugs into my body that will put me to sleep and help me escape this misery!" 


Then I woke up. I felt rested. No pain. My life, and my bowels, were a clean slate. The doctor had explained to Karen that he was able to obtain a tiny sample from the spot on my intestine, and that he had sent it off to the lab for identification. We were to return to his office on Friday morning to find out the results. 

Then we went home. 

In a way, we felt like our adventure was over. My pain was gone. We ate dinner that night. No pain. Had God healed me? That was our prayer. I couldn't know it at the time, but cancer was still growing inside my abdomen at a very rapid rate. But since there were no obstructions left in my digestive tract, I felt nothing.

Friday, October 11

On Friday morning, Karen and I drove to the clinic and rode the elevator upstairs in relative silence, both sensing that we were about to learn something really important. We waited for a little bit before seeing the doctor. When he came into the room, he explained that the lab had sent my biopsy to a "reference lab," which is standard practice when a particular tissue is difficult to classify. Unfortunately, we wouldn't learn the results until early next week. Try sleeping on that

Karen and I had a hundred questions. Why would they send our tissue away? What does our lab think it is? Certainly if it was cancer, they'd be like, "It's cancer." So the fact that they aren't telling us is probably a good thing. 

The next week began in relative normalcy. We tried to live our normal lives, even with the unknown test results looming over us at all times. I went to work. I played with the kids. I ate meals. No pain. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Every day brought a bit more frustration that we hadn't received test results, but also more confidence that nothing was wrong with me. By Thursday I was almost convinced of this fact. The doctor's call would just confirm it. 

Thursday, October 17

On Thursday, I went to lunch with Jason Howell and Sutton Davison at Chili's. I was feeling completely healthy by this point, and enjoying every moment of it. Toward the end of the meal, however, I began to sense a familiar uneasiness in my lower abdomen. Is that the same feeling I had two weeks ago? I wasn't sure. But as the pain steadily increased, a cloud of dread began to descend over me. I finished the meal quietly, not wanting to burden the guys with my worst fears. I didn't want to go back to work, so I decided to go home and rest to see if the pain would pass.

I got home to a quiet house. Karen and Charlotte were out to lunch. The boys were at school. I laid on the couch and listened to the soft hum of the ceiling fan over my head. I willed its gentle breeze to calm me down, but to no avail. I was scared, again. Helpless. Why hasn't the doctor called?! It's been eight days! Did they send my tissue to Sydney by boat? Or Carrier Pigeon?! As these thoughts passed through my head, I drifted to sleep.

I woke up to my cell phone ringing. It was my doctor. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Case of the Mondays

This is the 6th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.


The pain I experienced throughout that Sunday night was the most excruciating of my life. I lay in bed, just waiting for daylight and the doctor's appointment I had that morning. I anxiously watched the sky turn - black... gray... pink... orange... blue - the light brought some comfort, some hope that I would finally talk with someone who could help me.

Karen called the doctor's office at 8 and told them that I couldn't wait until my 10:00 appointment. They said I could go ahead and head in. We asked my mom to come stay with the kids (nearby grandparents are a blessing of the greatest kind), and Karen and I sped to the clinic. The poor nursing staff could tell that I was terribly uncomfortable, so they were able to get me into a room within a matter of minutes. My doctor walked in and started asking questions. My pain was blinding, and seeing as how I can't focus on two things at once completely healthy, I was hopeless to be of any help. I interrupted him mid-sentence: "Can I get a shot or something?" Our nurse came in with a wonderful syringe and stuck it in my buttocks. Sweet, blissful relief began to follow. Oh, the blessings of pharmaceutical drugs.

As the pain wore off, I began to think and speak more clearly. As foolish as it sounds, I reverted back to my initial hypothesis that I had a stomach ulcer. Dr. Wood wanted to schedule me for a CT Scan that afternoon, but for now I should only eat the BRAT diet - Bananas, Rice, Apples, Toast - which is specially formulated to be easy on the stomach, and also disgusting. So me and Karen went home. And I ate a banana and a piece of toast. What was I thinking?! I knew without doubt that I didn't have a stomach ulcer. But I was willing myself to not be very sick. So we ate, just the two of us, at our kitchen table. Then I crawled into bed and fell into a deep, blissful sleep - the first time in 4 days that I slept without pain.

Until about 3pm. I guess that's when my shot was scheduled to wear off. It did. It wore off with great vengeance and furious anger. We called our doctor and asked about the status of the CT Scan, only to learn they were having trouble pre-approving me for insurance. Karen told them that she had been pre-approved to give someone a fist to the throat.* Our doctor told us to go to the ER. That was the only way for us to get a CT Scan before Tuesday morning.

At about 4PM, we strolled into a busy ER waiting room, surrounded by lots of other hurting people. I had been drinking lots of fluids, because I had heard that was really good for stomach ulcers. That just kept adding to my pain. I went into the bathroom and tried to make myself throw up, thinking maybe that would ease the pain. I could only muster a couple of dry heaves. When I went back to the waiting room, everyone was staring at me. Karen told me I was really loud. Oops. I can honestly say it didn't matter to me at the time.

They called me back and got me onto a bed. The nurse could tell I was dehydrated and in severe pain. She got an IV started, and then brought in a little syringe and said, "This is a pretty potent pain medication. It's called Dilaudid. I'm going to dilute it with some saline before I give it to you, because it packs a pretty good punch." What happened next ranks among the greatest sensations I've ever experienced. I'll do my best to describe it in a way that you can share in my joy of remembrance:

If I had closed my eyes, I would've imagined that the nurse had brought in a large sledgehammer, which she raised high above my bed and smashed down into my chest. This brought shock - I felt pressed down on my mattress with great force, and I couldn't breathe. But then - the sledgehammer was warm, even to my heart. And that warmth began to permeate my body, bringing its peace to all my tissues and fibers.

That kind of comfort can only come after a similar level of pain. This gives me some idea what Tim Keller means when he says that heaven will be more glorious because of the suffering of earth.

At that point, I was completely comfortable and relaxed. I didn't care what they did to me. I got a chest Xray and the CT Scan. The doctor came in and told me that they needed to admit me to the hospital for some testing. I tested positive for H Pylori, which is a bacteria that lives in the stomach but that can become an infection if it is too present. As the doctor rambled on, I sort of drifted into thinking, "Well, that's it then. H Pylori. Give me my medicine and we'll get back on with life." But as he kept talking, I heard him say something about how my lymph nodes were all inflamed, which could mean a bunch of things, but one possibility was cancer.

*Record scratch*

Cancer? CANCER?! Nah. Not me. Had I kissed someone who had cancer? That's a crazy, worst-case scenario type thing. It's H Pylori.

As they wheeled my bed down the hall, I looked at Karen walking next to me. What an incredible woman. What a great wife. There is absolutely no one else I'd rather have next to me in that moment. I was probably too shocked or drugged to understand the gravity of our situation. But I don't think she was.

My gurney squeaked along the quiet, fluorescent corridor. Down the rabbit hole.

*Karen didn't say that