Tuesdays at the Chemo Unit, Feb 26 and Mar 5, 2013


I took this photo on the way to the hospital today. It seems to me this is a sign we should all be shown at birth.

Or it could say “Warning: Life is deep and messy and sometimes you can’t see the light.”


Last week I had my monthly appointment with my doctor. Because I’m reliably stable, I was given to the young and personable Resident to see. It was our first time meeting and he was very restrained as he reviewed the usual questions.

Then came the  moment when he asked me, “Can I examine you now?”

His eagerness made me laugh and I replied, “I know, you’re just dying to feel this liver, aren’t you?”

He laughed casually as I climbed up on the table. Then he started to actually examine the breadth of my liver and I saw a growing gleam in his eye.

“Oh, this really is exciting! I’ve never seen a liver like this before”

So maybe I shouldn’t feel satisfaction in having such a uniquely big liver, but I did feel a sense of accomplishment. If I’m to have a big liver, I want it to be the biggest. We might as well have some ambition in this life.



Today was a record. In and out of the chemo unit in half an hour. I’ve started to get my drug as a subcutaneous needle rather than through an intravenous infusion. I love the speed of it.

But that was not the end of my medical day. I had an appointment at another hospital in the afternoon. This hospital is world class and  I receive excellent care there.  But the building design is hopeless. Huge swaths of the hospital are entombed in windowless rooms and passageways. And you really need a GPS to find your way around.

When I went down to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota a number of years ago, the building complex  was also full of  confusing tunnels and corridors.  But  at the Mayo they had guides at each juncture to help direct people to their destinations. Every time we would scratch our heads in confusion, a kind person would approach us and asked us where we needed to go. Sadly at my hospital in Toronto, except for the information desk down in the lobby (nowhere near where you are when you get lost), there is often not a soul to be seen and only a poor map to guide you. I wonder if they every lose people who wander forever in their hallways.

I had some tests and saw one of my favourite doctors in a windowless wing of the hospital. In all, I was trapped there  for a few hours until I could emerge into daylight again. I was so struck by the beauty of the day after my sojourn into the bowels of the hospital, that I had to capture the view of the sunset from the top of the parking garage.





Yesterday was a great day at the chemo unit. I had a nurse I’d never had before who was so skilled I barely felt the needle go in. Sigh. Happiness is a good nurse.

Then, for the icing on the cake, a gaggle of my favourite nurses were clustered in the areas around me. I felt like the most popular kid in school with the nurses all smiling and calling, “Hey Sam, how’s it going?”, “See you later Sam.” “Sammy!” (there’s one nurse, who, inexplicably calls me Sammy – it’s quite endearing actually)

I felt enveloped by this lovely group of men and women who take such good care of me and who know me and who make the chemo unit as pleasant a place as possible to be. They all know my name is not Gayle, even though that’s the name on the card. They all know I’m not pregnant. They are not gooey sweet, they are just skilled,  good hearted and light-hearted and love to laugh. And they all care.


Aren’t I lucky?



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”.




I love the reception staff here. I really love them. they are the face of the chemo unit. They have very little control over how quickly people get in for their treatments, but they are the ones that get yelled at. They are often swamped with patients and with mysteries of missing cards, missing appointments, or missing people. They work  hard on behalf of patients and staff and get very little credit.

I didn’t always love them. In the beginning I thought they were unfriendly and unwelcoming. I resented the fact that many of them would never look up at me no matter how long I had been waiting there. I blamed them for all of my problems. Now I know they are just a little quirky.

There is the one who is always bubbly and full of smiles. She is the one that understands customer service. She knows how to say “I’ll be with you in just a moment”, so that you know she has seen you, rather than wondering if you are invisible. If you know you’ve been seen, you know you will be served. She always smiles and makes jokes about the “diamonds and sapphires bracelet” as she puts on the hospital arm band. She probably listened to the part of her training that suggested she think about customer service and I love her for this.

There’s the one that always looks like she is in a panic. She often has the “deer in the headlights” expression of someone who is wondering how they ended up in this position. This would explain why she doesn’t smile. She is just trying to keep her head above water.

There’s the one that looks like a total grump and looks like she would do anything to avoid hard work.  But I’ve learned that she is actually very sweet and often has a twinkle in her eye. I’ve also learned that she will do anything that needs to be done to help me.

There’s the one that speaks English with a thick accent. She works so hard on behalf of patients that sometimes she forgets to notice people coming up to the desk.

There are others and I really do love them all. Now that I understand them better I do not harbor resentment if their customer service skills are not at their height. They are all caring and ultimately helpful and they make coming to the chemo unit a pleasant experience.


Although many people will participate in this anthology who have no connection to Princess Margaret Hospital, it is still the epicentre of the project. My intention is to occasionally celebrate something wonderful about the hospital – a vignette – to give people a taste of what an incredible place it is.  I will try not to be too sentimental, but sometimes it’s hard when it comes to the people who have helped me there. Here is this week’s vignette: Manny the Chemo Nurse

There are many wonderful nurses in the chemo unit, but my particular favorite is Manny. Manny is probably everyone’s favorite. He’s  muscular, tattooed and carries a huge smile. Everyone knows Manny. He has endless energy and you can see how hard stillness is for him.

It is like poetry in motion to watch Manny work. He never stops, his eyes watchful, planning what to do next. He is economical with his movement, no wasted energy, but precise and confident. He never fails to get the vein first time, no muss, very little pain. My visits are short and snappy with Manny. No extra rituals beyond the minimum requirements.

This efficiency of movement would have served him well in the years that he spent moonlighting as chef and bartender.  He told me he was moved from the kitchen to behind the bar because of his energy and ability to entertain the customers the same way that he now entertains the patients. He would have been great up on the stage.

It t is because of him that the television in the chemo unit plays the food network instead of the 24 hours news channel. He is funny and kind and gives a party-like feeling to the unit even as he keeps patients flowing in and out like an efficient faucet.  You never feel rushed and always feel valued. You can also see that the dynamics between nurses is more lighthearted when Manny is there. He has an effect on the entire unit.

I was about to say “If only they were all like Manny”, but maybe he is better appreciated as a unique individual. Too much energy like his might make the place explode. We will enjoy one of him all we can.