A Tale of Two Hospitals

Yesterday, Richard and I drove to Denver on a perfectly lovely November afternoon with no wind or blowing snow, or any of the other weather tricks that life in the Colorado mountains can conjure. We left home at a few minutes after two–right on time–and sped up and over Trout Creek Pass, across the winter-brown prairie of South Park (that’s a bit of South Park below), and up and over Red Hill and Kenosha passes, and then up and down through the Foothills and into the Metro area by a few minutes before five, skating in before the rush hour traffic got too bad. 

I should have known things were going too smoothly.
We had planned to bring dinner to my parents, who live not far from our route into the Metro Area. I called them as we left home: no answer. I left a message. I called again from Fairplay in South Park, where the cell service is good. No answer. I called again from Conifer in the foothills, another patch of good cell service. No answer. I called again from the Whole Foods about two miles from their apartment in a senior complex. No answer. By then, I was worried.

When we got to the Westland Meridian, where my folks live, we learned that my mom had been “transported” (you’ve got to love jargon that brings up images of flying carpets and time machines!) to the hospital for severe dehydration. My dad had gone along. Which hospital? Jeremy Klassen, the executive director at the Westland, found out where she was and gave us directions. (Thank you, Jeremy.)


We drove to the hospital, and there was my mom in a room off the ER, looking tiny and and attached to more tubes and wires and monitors than I could easily count. She was sitting up though, and devouring her hospital dinner–sorry, Mom, but there is no other word for it! That was cheering. Turns out that the sore throat she reported when I called on Sunday had been the beginnings of pneumonia. Yesterday afternoon my dad got worried and they ended up in the hospital, where she was getting antibiotics from one IV bag and saline drip from another, plus oxygen whuffing into her nose, and electrodes attached to her chest to monitor her heartbeat.

She was stable though, and scheduled to be transferred to a real room for more care. After a while, we drove my dad home, and got out dinner for him from the deli stuff we brought (roasted root vegetables, rice pilaf, cherry crisp with lemon mousse–not a bad spread!).

By that time, Richard and I had almost forgotten why we ventured over the mountains to Denver. Almost. We hugged my dad and drove the rest of the way across the city to our room in the comfortable house where long-distance patients stay when they come to the other hospital in the story, the Veterans Administration’s Denver Medical Center.

This morning we woke before dawn and snuggled for a while, and then got up, did yoga, ate breakfast, and headed to the VA Medical Center in time to get a spot in the free parking garage and make his eight-thirty appointment with Oncology. The one where we expected to learn what happens next in this journey with brain cancer. Not that we were anxious or anything.

Richard checked in, and just a few minutes later, his Oncologist, Dr. Catherine Klein, came out to get us. She introduced herself, greeted us warmly, and led us back to the exam room. Over the next half-hour we learned that his tumor, a Grade 3 Astrocytoma for those that track these things, is serious enough that they want to treat it aggressively, which means six weeks of daily radiation focused on his right temporal lobe, accompanied by oral chemotherapy designed to enhance the effect of the radiation. 


According to Dr. Klein, who not only clearly knows what she is doing, she also cares about the people she’s treating, the theory is that although his tumor was clearly differentiated from the rest of his brain, the removal was clean, and he’s healing well (although he’s not back to sculpting granite yet, as in the photo above), the likelihood is very high that there are other cancer cells in the brain tissue around where the tumor was. Because cancer cells have mutated DNA, they are more susceptible to being killed by the radiation than the healthy cells around them. So the radiation with chemo to boost it targets the cancer cells, and the healthy cells are either be able to survive it, or will be able to grow back once the treatment is over. (Good thing he has plenty of brain cells to spare!) He’ll be treated in two stages: the initial six weeks of radiation plus chemo, and then a longer-term course of oral chemo for another three to four months.

The radiation treatment is daily (well, five days a week), so we’ll be living in Denver for that period and coming home on weekends if he feels like it and the schedule allows. The chemo alone we can do at home, with frequent trips to Denver to check his white blood cell count (chemotherapy nukes white blood cells, making you more vulnerable to infection).

We also learned that his brain cancer may be related to the colon cancer that runs in Richard’s family. (Four of his Dad’s six siblings had colon cancer; Richard’s sister survived colon cancer when she was in her early ’40s.) That’s a nugget to chew on, and something we need to learn more about–later. 

For now, we’re home again, and waiting to hear from the VA about when we’re due in Denver to begin the radiation and chemo–we hope as early as next week. We’re looking at the time in Denver as an opportunity to get to know the city in a way we haven’t before, living as we do in rural Colorado, and also as time to just be together on this stage of the journey. Seen that way, it’s like a residency–a residency for brain cancer though, not artistic promise. Still, it’s a period that gives us a chance to focus on what’s most important in our lives. That’s a short list: each other, our family and far-flung community of friends, our art and writing, and being able to live in a generous and sustainable way. That kind of time is precious, and we’ll do our best to use it well.

Oh, the news from the other hospital: When we left there earlier today, my mom had ordered a cheese and mushroom pizza, plus cookies to share with my dad for lunch. And she was agitating to go home. She’s going to be okay.

So are we. It may be a long road for Richard and I, but I’m sure of that.

In case you wondered, yes, I do come by my stubbornness–and my faith in love’s power to heal–honestly. The path of my inheritance is clear in the trio below.