Tuesdays from the chemo unit, Tuesday, April 24, 2012

There’s a reason I didn’t post yesterday from the chemo unit. After my article last week I decided to try an experiment. I decided that I would try to do nothing while I waited. Or, rather, I decided I would try to actively wait instead of just filling time until my appointment. It was a double trial because I had a clinic appointment before my chemo.

So I bet you are all wondering how I did. I bet you’re wondering if I could last without reading, writing or playing computer scrabble. Well, to you naysayers, I tell you that the first appointment went just fine. I started off by sitting and watching the world go by. I used the time to do some planning in my head for my writing. Planning is my default state when I’m not occupied elsewhere. After a bit, however, I tried to let even that go.

After about 15 minutes, I started to drift and then fell asleep. Sleeping was an excellent way to make the time pass quickly, but it felt like cheat. Besides, it’s not comfortable to sleep in the waiting room chairs. After my sleep I began to get antsy and was tempted to just quickly check my email or check the weather. But I resisted and actually found that I became quite relaxed. So relaxed that when my blood pressure was taken in my appointment, it was nice and low.

Hmmm. So by not doing anything or by actively deciding to make waiting my occupation, I became more relaxed.

I did give in when I went up to the chemo waiting room. “I’m sure I’ve got important emails to answer!” I thought to myself. “I’ll just check them and then begin my “wait” again. This time, however, I was taken in so quickly that there was no time. Next week I shall set myself the challenge to make it through the entire visit without a distraction. How long can you wait?

Cheers until next time.


Tuesdays from the chemo unit, April 17, 2012

Today is my long day at the chemo unit. Once a month I get an iron infusion which takes a few hours (watch out Popeye). Because I know it is my LONG day, my girl scout personality kicks in. I come prepared. As I walked over here, I did an inventory of everything I brought with me:

To do:

- my computer – with three running projects

- my book

- my iphone with email, scrabble, audiobooks and music

- my journal (but forgot the pen, dang)



To eat:

- some leftover pizza from last night

- a sandwich

- some leftover salad

- carrot sticks

- berries

- a pear

- some cookies

- some toasted almonds

- water and tea

(my appointment is at 9:30. At about 9:35 I’m wondering how soon I can break out the food)


Additional sundries:

- band aids

- hand cream

- lip balm

- spare bobby pins

- just about anything you might need (except a pen)


As I pop another almond in my mouth, I reflect on the other people in the unit.  Many of them walk in with nothing more than a wallet.  I’m in awe. Maybe it’s a zen kind of thing to be able to travel light, have few needs, and be able to sit for four hours with nothing to do. Maybe these folks are meditating. Maybe I am addicted to stimulation. Or maybe they just didn’t follow the motto “be prepared”.




Looking around the chemo unit waiting room I wonder about all of the stories that are sitting here. What kind of illness do people have? How are they feeling? How strong are the drugs they are receiving?

What do they think about being here? Are they grateful for the wonderful treatment we get ? Are they anxious about how they will feel after the treatment? Are they frustrated with waiting? Are they worried about their future? Are they simply non-chalant, just passing the time.

I see some patients who look sick – they are thin and frail, pale, bald. Perhaps they have a cane or they are being pushed in a wheelchair. Others are stealth patients. They look healthy, they have all their hair.

Where have they come from today. Did they have to drive far? Did they have to leave work or are they working at all? Are they here alone or did they bring a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend? Are some coming from farms? Did they have to wake up especially early to do chores before coming. Did anyone fly in from the North? Do they have a regular seat on one of those tiny planes? Did they walk over from a nearby neighbourhood?

Where did they come from originally? Are some from exotic locales who are shivering because of the unexpected cold snap today? Are others from war-torn countries, poor countries who are grateful to be sick in this country in this time? Are there some  who are lonely for a homeland and find Canadians cold and unfriendly?

I want to connect, to learn the stories, to share mine. Yet I’m shy to sit down and begin talking. There is such a strong sense of privacy, of just holding it together that it seems rude to intrude. Occasionally I can perceive an openness and begin a conversation. For the most part, however, I simply imagine the stories behind the faces. I look for clues in expressions, in hands, in feet. In my imaginings, there is always a happy ending.



It’s a beautiful spring day here in Toronto. I was happy to have my usual walk through Chinatown this morning, despite running late. Today I particularly noticed the beautiful Van Gogh inspired mural on the paint store at the corner of Huron and Baldwin. Big swirling strokes of blues, greens and yellows stand out among the winter brown of the neighbourhood.

Meanwhile at the chemo unit…..

I was thinking about beepers today. Once you have checked in at reception and received your little bracelet (one receptionist always calls them diamonds and sapphires), you are given a beeper that allows you to roam while you wait your turn. Everyone sits around the waiting room clutching their beepers, waiting for the magic moment.

The beepers are loud. They are meant to be heard. Everyone in the waiting room hears every beeper. If you happen to have it down on a counter or table, the sound is amplified five-fold. There is no discreet way to be beeped.

When mine beeps, I feel as if I have won the lottery or as if I have rolled up the rim to win the fancy car.   I guiltily go to claim my prize, feeling apologetic toward those that have not yet won theirs.  It may seem strange to have the words “I won” and “the chemo unit” in the same sentence, but it’s the way I feel. I get a little frisson of excitement when mine goes off. “Bingo!!” I want to yell.

When the pager goes off, I’m directed to a particular chair number in a particular unit. My winning number this time was lucky chair number 51.

Today, in addition to my regular medication, I received an iron infusion. The treatment sounds like something that I might get at the spa. “Oh yes, darling, you must get the iron infusion. It will do wonders for your skin tone. ” I appreciate getting the iron, it makes a huge difference to my energy. But I must say it is disconcerting to have something so brown flowing into my body.

Now I’m just imagining the little molecules of iron coursing through my body, telling everybody else to get out of the way and pumping up the energy. Go little iron molecules!



So I’ve decided that there is an inverse correlation between the amount of time a nurse takes to ponder which vein would be the best in which to stick my IV and the success of that IV. I would say about 95% of the time if the nurse studies my arm at length, tapping this vein or that vein, warming up my arm with a heating pad or putting the needle in ever so slowly then either the IV will fail (necessitating a second poke) or it will be more painful than usual. The nurses that are confident take a quick look at my arm and …jab… it’s done – clean and almost painless.  You could say I’ve become a conoisseur of sorts.

It reminds me of my oft forgotten maxim of the inverse correlation between my cooking style and taste. The longer it takes to make a dish, the more ingredients it uses, the more chopping that is involved, the more dirty dishes I create, and the greater quantity of the dish I make, the worse it tastes.  If I  make a good, simple meal, inevitably it will be tasty and we will run out before everyone has had their fill. 

I suppose those two examples are not exactly the same, but the common element is fussing and fretting over something. I wonder if it would be universally true to say that the more we fuss and fret or worry over something, the less successful it is. That’s not to say we shouldn’t put effort in, but it seems to me there is a difference between a confident yet open intention and overfussing. 

It seems to be the same with writing of any kind. How can we bring a confident  intention to the process of creating and revising, without worrying over it until it’s dead? Hmmm. Would this apply for artists in other domains? Any thoughts on this?


Happy Valentine’s day!

My Valentine’s day present was a quick trip in and out of the chemo unit. Of course I now know the trick. If I get out all of my papers and lunch and open up one of those little juices that cannot be re-closed, then that is the moment I get called. That is, when I have the most possible stuff to pack up, it is my time. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?


Last week, I had cause to reflect on tape whenI had one of my less favorite nurses. He really likes my needle to be taped down securely. In fact, last week he used a larger bandage than I have ever seen to hold my needle secure. I felt like my arm was encased in saran wrap. Here’s a picture – note the double layer of plastic and the extra piece of masking tape further down my arm:





Now to provide some context, my drug takes exactly 5 seconds to administer. The needle does not stay in long. I can’t decide if this nurse puts so much on just to get my goat, or because he is a creature of habit. The worst part of it was that after putting all of this tape on, he realized that he had not hit a good vein. Thus he had to rip off all the tape and bandages, take the needle out and start again. I bit my lip and smiled through this mess. (would you complain to a person with a needle in their hand?)

I think that to be a nurse, you need to be good at rituals and systems. I believe that the profession attracts people who are good at following a procedure through the same way every time. But to excel as a nurse, also means to bring common sense into the equation. My favorite nurses barely stick a piece of masking tape on, give me the drug and get the needle out quickly.

Another ritual that some of the nurses have is the use of the heating pad. For people with poor veins, I gather the heating pad is useful. I have good veins. The good nurses never use the heating pad with me. One day a nurse was setting me up with a heating pad and I suggested that maybe it was not necessary. She said, “but it’s what I do!”. Clearly a person who is stuck on her rituals.

A little balance and a little less tape and I shall be happy.


As I lumber through the dregs of yesterday’s snowstorm on my way to the hospital today, I reflect on how I am feeling about going to the chemo unit. What is my reaction to this weekly ritual? I think it’s safe to say I am not thinking “Yippee, yahoo, I get to go to the chemo unit. Walk faster, I want to get that needle sooner!” At the same time, I am not dreading my visit. I do not have any gut-squeezing anxiety about my trip here. (It’s easier for me than some visitors to the chemo unit because I do not associate my visits with throwing up and losing my hair. My drug is relatively easy to tolerate.)

It surprises to me to understand that after almost two years of coming here, I actually have an affectionate feeling towards the chemo unit. I may belly ache a great deal about the wait times; I may complain about feeling like I am in a black hole on a given day. But that whining does not diminish the bigger picture of the people that work here.  I realize that any place where there are kind and caring people, can begin to feel a little bit like home. I have, in a sense, my chemo family that knows me and looks out for me during this weekly visit.

I smile over this realization as I arrive on the fourth floor. I am greeted by all three of the receptionists with friendly smiles and jokes. Michael checks me in quickly and I  relax, settle in for the wait and wonder which family member will take care of me today.


I’ve decided to start a new feature at Ultra Sounds.  Drum roll please….. Tuesdays from the Chemo Unit.

Every Tuesday I get to spend time at the chemo unit and I thought I would undertake some firsthand reporting of my experiences. This is a place full of excitement and interesting people. In fact, I was thinking that the waiting room of the chemo unit could make for a great television show – “chemo”. I can just see the cast of humorous characters that could populate the show. The wise-cracking bald woman, the elderly man with the cane who can’t speak English, but makes lots of funny jokes with his eyes, the woman who comes with her three grown children, her husband and her cousin Irving because she needs the support.

Or maybe it could be some kind of survivor reality tv show – if you get voted out of the waiting room, you have to wait longer for your chemo.

So here I am today, buzzer in hand waiting for “my moment” when I will be called in. What colour ward will I be assigned today? Purple? Orange? The staff seems to rotate through the different wards, so there are no guarantees on who I might get. Will it be the guy who shuffles through his work in the slowest possible way? He’s the one that takes three trips when one will do and likes to use lots of tape and bandages to make my line secure for the three second injection. Or will I get Manny or Giselle, two of my favorites, who get in me in and out in record time. They are poetry in motion – friendly and warm, but totally efficient in their actions. Will I get someone who insists on warming up my arm with the heating pad? (Snore) Or will I get someone who gives me a quick tap and says “Good veins” and sticks the needle in. Oh, the suspense…

Ah, the buzzer is telling me that my time has come. Until the next time…..