They say this is a safe haven for healing, a sanctuary just like home. If you live at 13 Chernobyl Place.
Radiation Therapy 3 is where they do all the "head cases." It is to be "my" machine.
When they arrange me on that moving steel table, they say, "Just be calm and hold still." But they'll be leaving this vault; they'll walk up the ramp and outside the several-feet-of-concrete walls and to the other side of that lead door that goes boom when it closes, and I'll be in here alone.
With my head in the mouth of the dragon.
The big yellow-orange radiation symbols scare everybody who walks into the Cancer Center, especially the patients. Even those of us, like me, who don't have cancer, but have one of the benign conditions that can be best treated with radiation. This is all explained in the booklets they give you at the Radiation Therapy center.
Of course I don't call it that. I call it the Zap Palace.
# # #
I go in for radiation at 10 every morning for the next five weeks, weekends off. There are to be 25 treatments of around 180 rads, which is the safe level according to--whatever it's according to.
Last week, I helped with an art project: my mask. It's a synthetic grid-screen shaped to your face, made of quick-hardening plastic attached to a steel base. The first few times they strapped on the mask and bolted it to the table, with my nose firmly squashed against the grid, I had an asthma attack. "Hold still! Be brave," urged the well-meaning technician during this simulation. The first time they turned on the positioning laser, I felt as if Scotty were beaming me up. It's the brightest light in the mortal world.
Now it's time for me to meet that huge friendly dragon.
All I can do is lie still and pray.
A few years ago, a malfunction in a similar dragon-machine caused at least six patients to die from accidental massive overdoses. It was a software glitch; one patient received two doses of 20,000 rads ("Radiation Absorbed Doses.") Doses of 500 to 1,000 rads can be fatal.
It's all I can think about, this fear that another glitch might happen, or that the beam is pointing just south of the proper tissue, that it'll kill the wrong tissue. This is going to the center of my head, after all--my brain, where I live. I asked my surgeon whether radiation wouldn't kill brain cells, and he joked, "Only the weak ones!" But then it wasn't his brain in the line of fire.
# # #
The first day of treatments, I balk. The headrest that my simulation tech assured me was mine is missing. They substitute a smaller one, but I refuse. In simulation, they had directed the beam to an area smaller than an English pea, and I can’t risk having the beam be "off," too close to my optic nerve. Before they can stop me, I jerk open the drawer behind the wall where the other tech had stashed "my" headrest. It's empty.
Everyone tells me I'm crazy and I'd better settle down and start treatments. Others are waiting, and there's a tight schedule. Prayer would have to suffice to bend the beam.
The next day yet another tech sets down the same headrest, and I realized that the day before, it had been UPSIDE DOWN. That was why it'd been so apparent that it was inches lower and oddly tilted.
The lasting effect is that I develop a variable blind spot in the lower left quadrant of my left eye. I rant to my poor long-suffering family: "Bastards. I told them that headrest was wrong. I should've walked out, but they insisted I was just hysterical. One day of waiting wouldn't have mattered."
# # #
One morning as I wait, dizzy, in the staging area just outside "my" machine, the previous patient staggers out and starts vomiting into the trash can next to the water cooler. Everyone from patients to medical staff acts as though this is perfectly normal.
There's a little blond boy here who can't be more than five years old. I pray that he and his grandmother have come to support someone else, but then I see the purple X inked on his Adam's apple.
He has a twin sister at home and five other siblings under twelve. He says the worst part for him is that he's so lonesome; he misses his twin. But he's enjoying the Ronald McDonald house. He's never been in such a big city.
He's so brave. I, on the other hand, am a chickenshit coward.
I'm a terrible patient.
# # #
I have radiation sickness.
Not as in ground-zero, of course. Mild. The only foods that don't make me hurl are saltine crackers and 7-Up. It's not as though they're going to run the Geiger counter over me like in "Project X From Outer Space," and say, "She's full of crickets," but it's upsetting.
It's all upsetting. When you're on the table with your head strapped in, and the voice on the speaker says, "Keep your chin pointed up, now . . . don't move . . . here we go," and the lead door locks shut, you and God are in there alone.
The overhead lights go off and the dragon begins to hum.
So you just lie there and whisper prayers, telling the Lord how thankful you are that He's in control, and that you trust Him to guide that beam where He wants it to go, only to any "bad" places and cells, and protecting your optic nerve(s) and brain parts. You squeeze your eyes closed and murmur Psalm 146 as you feel your lower half floating up off the table towards the ceiling as the bright beam crosses your face. But it's your astral body, not your physical body, that moves. You tense your leg muscles so as not to fall off the table, and you trust that the dose went to the proper site.
Then the ambient light comes back on, and the table whirrs and hums and ratchets down and forward a few feet, and the door unlocks and opens, and one of your two techs comes into the room and loosens your helmet. "That's all for today," she chirps. You sit up as if you've only had your colors done. Your head wobbles. You feel as if your head is about to fall off, but then you realize you're just a little light-headed. You can make it back down the hall, keeping your head on the leash. . . .your head, that balloon that you pull along behind you, bouncing against the ceiling.
I try to tell them I'm not having those leg jerks and attacks of "the shakes" all over my body on purpose. My brain doesn't want to be zapped.
If only it were my foot or my butt or anything but my brain getting the dose. We're only issued the one brain at birth. And when you live the life of the mind and aren't athletic and can't even sew, it makes you jittery to think of your brain getting fried. No wonder patients occasionally have nervous rigors.
# # #
Mama says she thinks some environmental factor in our remodeled house caused my illness. My husband pooh-poohs this, pointing out that resale values have fallen and that we're unwilling to move on a whim. She tells me, without thinking, "If this comes back on you in six months, then I'll know I'm right, and I'll have the last word with your husband." Well, that reminds me of the one-dollar bet in the film Trading Places, in which two people's lives were ruined, but hey, the bet was won.
She doesn't mean to scare me. She has no filter between her thoughts and her mouth, which is always in gear.
# # #
Only seven more treatments to go.
When during my checkup I mention a lump forming behind my ear, Dr. Goldwell's face distorts. The professional "doctor" veil descends and he practically grabs at my head to see. Then he breathes a sigh of relief. "It's nothing. We'll watch it. It's probably where your weight presses on the helmet." Today they cushion it with a bit of cotton.
As I make my way down the inner hall, a clump of chestnut hair floats to the floor from a woman whose wheelchair is rolling past. What can I do but step around it?
The patient who goes in just before me, a woman I have greeted daily as she walked out of the treatment area--the one who barfed into the trash--didn't show today. Did she quit or get sick? I don't even know her name, and I forget to ask after my treatment. Later, I overhear a nurse explaining to a newcomer that some people die from the radiation before they can complete their treatments. This makes me feel so much better.
# # #
Only one more session. Last day in the mouth of the dragon.
The doctor and I have our final consultation. I have a few blind spots, but nothing big enough to be consciously aware of. I can drive! No picking up anything heavier than ten pounds, and no bending over.
"As I say to all my patients, I hope I never see you again," he says, shaking my hand. He's smiling. I'm a success story.
# # #
This time, I got lucky. For some reason, when I prayed that I needed more time and wanted to accomplish my mission in life, I got a "Yes!" I don't yet know what this mission is going to be. It's like wading through a swamp in the dark; you'd prefer a map and a stated goal, but that's not what you get. You wish for "a flashlight unto my feet," as the child in Sunday School said, misquoting the Bible amusingly. But what happens is that you take a step and then have to trust that you'll know when and where to step next.
Why me? Why you? Why anybody? I suppose the question is, why not us?
# # #
There's no such thing. But I had my final follow-up visit with the doctor. The building seems unfamiliar now. It all seems so far away that it must have been somebody else lying on the steel table, enduring the endless burning beam. I have a blister behind my ear where that lump had been, but it's supposedly just from irritation.
On impulse, I asked him what the chances were that the treatments hadn't worked.
"I'd say between 15 and 20 percent."
I wished I hadn't asked.
He smiled and said he was sure I was all right, and I should call him with any questions.
I'm not the kind who usually hits the lottery or wins the giant stuffed banana at the State Fair. But this time, I'm lucky. I will be in the lucky 80 percent this time because I WILL be. I know I am.
Lucky, I mean.