Cross-posted, with some edits, from Coffee and Chemo
Radiation therapy draws its unsuspecting victims into an alternative universe.
For 20 consecutive days, excluding Friday and Shabbat, I descended into the darkest depths of Machon Sharett, the cancer ward at Hadassah Ein Kerem, in Jerusalem. Then I trudged down the long, dimly lit corridor, until I reached the last door on my left, room 38.
I really could get into painting this “gloom and doom” picture, but it really would not give you an accurate picture, nor is it really the point of this post.
True, the radiation department is on the bottom floor of Machon Sharett. Also true, my radiation room was at the end of a very long, rather dim hallway (though better than I remembered from my last radiation treatments).
But I did not “trudge” to some ominous destination, and I certainly was not a victim.
Besides, this post is not about the journey, but rather the people we meet and the mysterious magic that happens when strangers meet, day after day, for weeks on end.
I spent the first few days of radiation in a haze, still in shock from my diagnosis and how fast my doctor scheduled me to begin radiation. It took me time to get into a routine. After a few days, I figured out what time works best for me to get to the hospital (around 10:00), where and how to park (give my “date”/driver the parking permit, and get on line while she parks), how much time I can expect to be there (20 minutes to an hour), and what my day will look like afterwards (SLEEPY).
By the third or fourth day, I could pick my head up out of the water enough to notice the people around me.
By the middle of the second week, I recognized the “regulars,” most notably:
1. The solemn elderly Russian lady who, when I smiled at her, looked up and flashed me a gold-toothed smile. A few days later, I tried to talk with her, but could not understand her friendly response… in Russian. With no real common language, our exchanges consisted of very simple dialogue and hand signals.
2. The sweet older South African couple, with whom I established a real friendship. They came from out of the city, and arrived every day around the same time as I. I loved watching them together, so attentive of one another.
This couple is the inspiration for this post.
You see, for almost a full month, we saw each other every day. Once we became friendly, we also spoke almost every day. We shared details about our lives, our families, our friends.
In the waiting area, our lives became intensely connected.
It is a very strange phenomenon — this sudden connection and just as sudden disconnect.
Strangers become close friends, and then, in an instant, the day radiation is over, we return to our “normal” lives, and our “normal” circle of friends.
To a certain extent, this dynamic is also true about the radiation staff. Though the staff tends to keep a professional distance, some technicians are friendlier than others. Some of us even remember each other from my previous radiation (tw0 years ago, to my left hip).
I really appreciated it when the staff members treated me as a person, and not just a patient. It made the process a little less scary. For a few seconds, I could pretend I am out visiting friends and not in the hospital getting my brain zapped.
The relationship is even more intense, since I am relying on these people to get everything right. I was pretty nervous about the whole brain radiation, and every day I had another question or two. As I got more answers, I felt increasingly confident about my treatment.
And then, as with the other patients, one day it was over. These people, in whose trust I placed my life, and who I saw every day, are now… in another world.
They exist in an alternative universe, one I hope not to visit again.