Esophageal Cancer 101
I pictured the progress of my husband’s disease as a gathering of dark clouds that closed off any avenue of light, clusters of heavy, tentative drops, a downpour held in suspension for months……
I’m wide awake at 0530, thinking about my husband and wondering how he’s doing. It’s exactly eleven hours since his surgery and eight hours since I last saw him. I switch on the light next to my bed and reach for a folded white sheet of paper on my nightstand. The extension for the ICU is written in pencil with the name, “Mindy” printed on top. I dial the number on my cordless hoping for a detailed report from the night nurse. I don’t like surprises.
“Your husband is doing fine,” she says. “The doctor extubated him an hour ago and he’s resting comfortably.” I let out a sigh of relief. The fact that Michael is able to breathe on his own gives me some degree of hope.
I don’t leave the house until 0830. Morning chores in preparation for Michael’s return take precedence. I take time to eat a nutritious breakfast, walk a mile with the dog, and prepare my mind for what’s to come.
Standing outside of Michael’s hospital room, I brace myself before I open the door. “Inhale, exhale,” I whisper while taking an additional cleansing breath and reciting a short prayer. I stand on my tiptoes, leaning my face against the glass window as I peer into the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of him before entering. I walk toward his bed and gently slide the paisley curtains back to one side. My husband’s body is covered with a cream colored blanket; his head is elevated and his eyes are closed.
The nurse fills me in on his current condition. “Your husband’s vitals are fine, his lungs are coarse, but that’s to be expected. He’s receiving respiratory treatments around the clock.” Michael stirred and I glanced in his direction. He opened his eyes and in a hoarse voice said, “Hello.” He pointed his left forefinger at the nasal gastric tube inserted in his right nare, “I’d like this out.”
“Its purpose is to drain the gastric contents and decompress your stomach,” I told him. “The doctor will remove it when it’s time.” I had hoped my explanation might alleviate his anxiety and allow him to cope with the multiple wires, drains, and machinery he was connected to.
As an RN, I wasn’t sure about my role and kept switching from ‘wife’ to “nurse.” I’d glance around the room, silently verifying his vitals: blood pressure, respirations, oxygenation, and insuring all connections were intact before pulling up a chair and once again becoming his wife.
My routine stayed the same for five days. I’d visit Michael in the hospital from 0830 until 1000, work at the hospital until lunch, visit him at noon, finish up my work day, and return to Michael’s room until visiting hours were over. My schedule never deviated—rigid structure became a necessity—a way to control an otherwise unmanageable situation.
The nurse, nutritionist, and case worker began preparing us for the homecoming two days before discharge. Michael’s depleted energy level and intermittent gastric pain required short naps in a recliner and round-the-clock medication. We continued his night tube feedings and adjusted to a regiment of six small meals a day. We were now on his diet, a typed list of “do’s” and “don’ts” to eat. Forget about hamburgers, spaghetti, or tacos; we were gearing up for a diet of puddings, bananas, applesauce, eggs, hot cereal, and any other foods with the following criteria—soft and mushy. Energy drinks lined up like miniature soldiers along the door of the refrigerator and cartons of ice cream and yogurt filled the freezer.
Home sweet home
Michael’s recuperation took weeks with progress noted each day; after four days his tube feedings were discontinued since he was able to hold down table foods. After the first week, he slept in our bed, his head resting on a 30-degree wedge pillow. As for me, I was able to sleep soundly with my hand intertwined in his, listening to my pillow speaker till the wee hours of the night, no longer needing to adhere to my strict routine, gaining a bit of control over the situation at hand—believing, once again, that we had a future together.