Monday, September 8, 2008

tough as steel

It's much easier to write about passing thoughts, or past events, than it is to write about this sort of thing. My father's received his 4th chemotherapy treatment yesterday, and I suppose the reason I'm able to write today is that he looked absolutely fine when I visited him with my brother afterwards. It's not so difficult to write when there is optimism to be expressed, and there is. Really he looked no worse for wear than when he was initially admitted to the hospital, and to see him the same as I've always seen him was encouraging.

The saying goes that doctors make the worst patients. I'm assuming it was a doctor or nurse that was treating another doctor that first came up with this saying, and in my father's case, it's easy to see why. When he was first admitted, my dad had a complaint about the manner with which the medical staff had inserted his IV. He bemoaned the layout of his room and how it shouldn't be such a chore wheeling his drip into the bathroom with him. These smaller complaints, of course, spoke to the larger complaint he has about the corporatization of medicine and how he was happy to have gotten out of the profession while the getting was still good. Recently, he started asking his doctors for copies of his own blood work to review.

Though it may be difficult for a medical professional to treat another doctor, it's even tougher to be a family member of a hospitalized doctor. Just to step out of the elevator into the cancer ward, I have to pump myself up, drawing upon what little internal strength I have in order to float a smiley face down his hall. The matter-of-factness with which my dad talks about his condition, though, pops my positivistic balloon. Yesterday, when I commented upon how good he looked, he smiled and said, "Just wait. It's going to get a lot worse in the next week."

He then proceeded to tell my brother and I what a healthy person's white blood cell count, red blood cell count, and platelet count is-- then, he told us what his counts were. He gave us an overview (in layman's terms) of what was being done to his body-- how the chemotherapy treatments were "the hammer" that were meant to smash "the bug" in his bone marrow, leaving his immune system paper-thin in the process.

He did say his doctors had been encouraged by his response to his treatment, and that they were optimistic that his immune system would rebound, but my father undercut this optimism by pointing out there's a chance the hammer might not succeed in smashing the bug. And even if it does, either way, he said, "I'll be getting a lot worse before I get better."

My brother sat against the wall, looking into his lap. He was not accustomed to my father's frankness regarding his condition like I was.

Fortunately, my brother and I had decided to visit the afternoon of the Steelers' first game against the Texans. Soon, father, son & son were busy watching and commenting upon the game, and we fell into a conversational groove that moved us past my father and his condition. It was as if his hospital room scenery were a backdrop that was removed by unseen stage hands. We talked about the ceremony before the game, honoring Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and Myron Cope. I criticized my brother's love for Tom Brady, the quarterback for New England, and tangentially for A-Rod, the third-baseman for the Yankees, and I used both criticisms to call my brother's Pittsburgh fandom "deeply flawed." My father laughed as I ribbed my brother; he even got in on the act by saying Tibor had been living too long now in New Jersey. The only thing missing was the beer and pizza.

The Steelers crushed the Texans in their home opener, much like I hope the chemo "hammer" is crushing the "bug" in my father's bone marrow. Here's one of the five Steelers sacks in the win.

I did not discuss it with my bro, but I felt a deeper connection to the team and the city after our visit with dad. The Steelers' success on the football field lightened the mood in his hospital room, and I like to think the optimism we all felt about the team this season was infectious. My brother and I left the hospital at halftime happy and confident about my father's condition when we both were feeling tentative and a bit scared before.

No wonder this city embraced the success of the Steelers so tightly in the '70s when the steel industry collapsed here. They needed something to cheer for, to be positive about. I now understand that better than I ever thought I could.

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