Esophageal Cancer 101
It’s exactly two hours since my husband, Michael, was wheeled down the hospital corridor toward the surgical suites. Yes, they refer to them as suites, as if they are large, comfortable rooms with all the amenities of a four-star hotel. As a perioperative nurse for fourteen years, I understand the inner workings of an OR: bright overhead lights, frigid circulating air, scalpels, sponges, and sutures lined up on metal carts, a circulator retrieving supplies while a scrub nurse and surgeon stay in their sterile fields humming melodies blaring from mounted speakers. And all the while my husband naps under the supervision of a hand-picked (by me) anesthesiologist, who tracks Michael’s vitals on wall monitors, aware of all his inner workings. I wonder what song they’re playing now.
“Half-way through,” I told myself as I watched my family head back to the waiting area after sharing a light lunch. Sitting on an easy chair in the hospital lobby, I closed my eyes and listened to the echo of clicking heels on the stone-tile floor. I imagined Clydesdale horses, with their broad chests, frying pan sized hooves and luxurious leg feathering, prancing down cobblestone streets. I’m reminded of a trip Michael and I took a few years back to Victoria, B.C., where we watched a parade on Government Street; a quaint area with colorful flower baskets hanging on every corner and English tea houses surrounded by lush gardens. It represented a time when we were carefree without the complications of illness and uncertainty—a time when we mapped out our future together—a time when we had control over our lives.
My rubber-soled shoes are silent as they walk these familiar halls, one foot ahead of another, an effortless process. Navigating my way around the hospital was easy; I knew the layout: entrances, staircases, every twist and turn in this huge facility including the detours through dimly lit hallways leading to outside buildings. I could find my way around blindfolded, as I’ve worked here since I graduated from nursing school eighteen years ago.
The exhaustion from the last month has caught up with me. I seek a quiet place—away from family, hospital colleagues, and well wishers who call my cell phone wanting hourly updates. The chapel, located on the first floor across from an outside garden, looks inviting. I’m relieved to find I’m the only visitor. Sitting on a wooden pew, I stare at a stained glass window scene: a holy man with a silver headdress, red flowing robe, kneeling next to a young man lying supine with a helpless look on his face as if he’s on the verge of tears. I bury my head in my hands and begin to pray.
A receptionist notifies me that my husband’s surgery has ended. “You can see him in the recovery area,” she tells me as she checks my name off the list with her pencil. “He’s in space twelve.” I picture the pod where Michael is being recovered; his cart is parked in front of a window with a picturesque view of a mountain shaped like a camel’s back—a place where my husband and I used to hike. It’s a window where clouds pass by as if they are trying to escape the suffering—a window that acts as a barrier from the outside world as it shuts out the sounds of illness; families who confront truth with muffled sobs and whispered conversations.
As I approach the automatic double doors, I imagine what Michael might look like: his face gaunt and pale, labored breathing and a chest cavity carved down to nothing with tubes and wires sticking out from every orifice on his body. Even though I’ve recovered hundreds of post-surgical patients during my career with every imaginable diagnosis and surgical outcome, I hesitate before entering my old turf.
His nurse motions me toward her. Blue plaid curtains are pulled around him, leaving only a small opening to enter. After a brief prayer, I part the curtains, enter the cubicle and scan his face noting his color, a pale pink, his slightly cracked lips, and the hum of a bedside ventilator assisting his breathing. I begin counting the catheters starting at his neck. I’m on number five when the nurse, who I’ve known for years, rattles off a complete report, filling me in on the intake, output, pain medications, ventilation settings and current vitals.
I find his hand and place it in mine. “Squeeze my hand if you hear me,” I tell him as if I am his nurse. He wraps his fingers around mine. I lean over to kiss him on his forehead and somehow I know everything will be alright.