Here I sit the day before my stem cell transplant after 6 days of chemo, in a sterile room with linoleum floors and an endless cascade of medical waste in the form of plastic wrappers and alcohol swabs. Everything about me is manufactured for a specific purpose, which should be patient comfort, but even small talk often seems to stroke the egos of medical staff. I’ve been knitting a sock, like any regular, unconfined person may do, and at least twice I have been told that I need to sew some grips on the bottom. It doesn’t even occur to the medical professionals that my entire life is not centered around the BMT clinic. First, even if I wanted to only wear socks around the hospital (I do not want all those cleaning products sticking to my feet) instead of slippers or shoes, I’m only planning on being here for another two weeks or so. What an insignificant amount of time to spend in one place, for the expectation that I’ll be around long enough to need grips on my socks! Another problem I have with these types of off-hand remarks is that it robs me of my youth, as “older” people are the ones with “Fall Precautions” outside their doors. I’m 23, clearly able-bodied, and don’t have to give into the “sick cancer person” vibe the nurses seem to cherish as they experience some inauthentic altruism in their day-to-day work.
I reread the above paragraph and question: am I ungrateful? These doctors, nurses, waiters, housekeepers, and pharmacists are all employed on the basis of treating me, and curing me, of a cancer I never asked for. The lack of empathy people have about patients’ loss of control is disheartening. I attended a “wellness group” yesterday where about 5 people and the recreational therapist introduced themselves and then made inspirational collages from magazines and the patterned plastic scissors you last used when you were 7. My collage ended up with a brilliant photo of Barack Obama pointing to bleeding hearts, which I think is a clever double entendre for my own liberal ideals. The words “love,” “hope,” and “encourage” may help my fellow patients (who were all over 50) reflect on how to get through their own suffering, but fall emptily on the ears of a young person who maybe hasn’t given up yet. I wish the staff could see my will without me having to tell them hollow facts about myself, though maybe we’re all striving to feel more compassion, and I don’t know these people either.