I was walking toward Centre Street in Chinatown, when I heard an ambulance. The sound was getting louder and louder as it inched its way through Manhattan traffic. Of course it’s not an unusual sound to hear in Manhattan, but today it seemed to unnerve me.
Today I was on the way to see an oncologist, the first one of two medical professionals for whom I had received referrals, to discuss possible cancer treatment.
My sister and I arrived at the building and noticed that the ambulance we heard moments ago had pulled up outside. Two emergency medical technicians entered behind us and commandeered an elevator that sluggishly dragged its way down to the ground floor.
Is this a sign?
Moments later, the elevator had returned and we finally headed up to the doctor’s office. I was instantly discouraged. It was a clinic, an environment I was all too familiar with—where you find the poor, the elderly and the recently unemployed like me, with disinterested employees scarcely acknowledging patients as they enter. Uncomfortable plastic chairs faced a television transmitting a Chinese soap opera. To the side, women were seated behind a long counter their eyes trained on computer screens. In back of them were rows of over-stuffed files of medical information positioned on top of file cabinets — all of which made me wonder in what decade did this office exist?
I informed one of the women at the counter that I had an appointment and she handed me a clipboard with a form attached to it to fill out. Once completed, I settled in for what was probably going to be a very long wait.
Inside another room I could see the EMTs from before getting ready to place an elderly patient onto a stretcher. My attention returned to the waiting area when a woman two rows in front of us coughed without covering her mouth. My sister, a teacher now blissfully retired, spent years teaching adolescents to cough inside their elbows to prevent the transmission of germs, grinned at the expression of revulsion on my face. I’m thinking about the fact that chemotherapy weakens ones’ immune system. I grimaced, sighed and tried to read AM New York.
An hour or so later, an alarm sounded. No one moved. No one seemed to be paying attention to the loud, piercing sound, shrill enough to make one’s ears bleed. Finally someone deciphered the mumbling announcement and discovered that there actually was a fire two floors below. A man ushered us down a second flight of stairs because the main stairwell was already crowded.
Yes, this is a sign.
Eventually the crowd outside the building was allowed back inside to much confusion because the decrepit elevators were not yet operational. People were slowly trying to walk back to upper floors while others, including elderly and infirm using walkers, were still on their way down.
I finally got a break and sprinted all the way up to the fifth floor only to find out that the doctor had not returned and that they had no idea when or if he’d be back. Moments later I was finally sent in, only to find out that I was seeing a different doctor than planned. It was alarming that this doctor was not the physician recommended by my surgeon, but someone taking on his new clients. That was the first mistake—not informing me of this. My surgeon specifically recommended someone who would treat me at New York Presbyterian and that was affiliated with Weill Cornell, a hospital and medical facility that I had grown to trust. I had a bad feeling about this young doctor from the moment he told me that all of the doctor’s new patients were being given to him, because, the other doctor, he enlightened me, was “old” and didn’t want to take on new patients.
I had a list of questions, but felt like an idiot for even asking them. He bluntly answered the questions that I managed to ask, as if he relished giving out bad news. I relayed what little information I had been told by the surgical oncologist. “Oh, that’s bad.” He said and proceeded to basically tell me that I would have to be given the worse (i.e. aggressive) kind of chemotherapy. I had visions of myself frail, bald and excruciatingly sick. As if he had read my suddenly terrified mind, he blurted, “You’re going to lose all that beautiful hair.”
“Yes, chemo can cause cancer” he said at another point, as if I had asked the most unintelligent question in the world, mentioning leukemia and rattling off other cancers that could occur without explaining why in hell one would do chemo to kill cancer only to get cancer. He finished with the necessity of radiation treatment and that radiation could cause lung and thyroid cancer.
Okay, so he was insufferably honest. Great way to prepare a patient for chemo and radiation therapy.
After a grating examination of my breast and the surgical area (at least he said my surgeon did a good job) he ordered blood work, chemo meds and set up an appointment for a surgical procedure to have an implanted port placed inside my chest. A port is a small medical appliance implanted under the skin. It’s often described as an artificial vein through which chemo drugs can be injected and blood samples drawn with less discomfort than through needles. I can’t remember the doctor’s exact reasoning for using the port at the time, but I had visions of my veins and flesh disintegrating.
My head was spinning. I was given very little time to absorb the frightening information I was hearing. All I knew was that deep inside I thought that a doctor should not order chemo meds and surgery before a patient has agreed to be taken under his care. This feeling was confirmed by the nurse who apparently questioned, in Chinese, whether it was wise to order the chemo drugs if he was not sure I’d actually be his patient, but he waved this off.
I also learned that the chemotherapy would be done at this clinic. Would I want to have chemotherapy in such a disorganized building, where at least one nurse was having a difficult time understanding me, and I her? I asked if I would need to be driven to chemotherapy or if I could take the subway and the doctor told me that I would have to wear a mask (and I’m putting his words mildly here) because my immune system would be compromised. My writer’s imagination had me wrapped in cellophane for a year.
During the consultation, he excused himself to take a call. Judging from what I could hear, he apparently had come up with a plan of treatment for the person on the other end. “What will happen if you don’t do the treatment?” I heard him repeat. “Well, you’re going to die.”
After the visit and using the restroom in that horrible building, I told my sister, “At least I won’t have to worry about my dreadlocks when I go into a public bathroom,” as there is an art to making sure your locks don’t fall into the toilet or touch a nasty, germ-contaminated floor.
“Well," my sister said, "At least you still have a sense of humor.”
That night my sister stayed up binge watching Grey’s Anatomy to decompress. That wouldn’t have been my choice - considering.
I managed to fall asleep, but in the morning, for the first time since my breast cancer diagnosis, I cried.