After round three, my counts plummeted like the Time’s Square Ball on New Year’s Eve. Painful blistering sores started popping up on the corners of my mouth, the insides of my mouth, and down my throat. Within two days of being off the chemo pump, I couldn’t swallow water. I wasn’t even eating Jell-O because it felt like I was swallowing shards of glass.
When I walked into Dr. Chawla’s office, I was chanting: “Counts will be high! Counts will be High! COUNTS WILL BE HIGH!” willing my body’s immune system to at least kick in this round.
Thanksgiving was four days away. I was determined to watch the kick off to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at my momma’s house eating breakfast sausage and biscuits while the turkey was cooking in the oven.
I was ninety-five pounds of determined affirmations.
But as usual, Vickie came out with my lab results, “You got to go to the hospital.”
That was it.
I couldn’t take it anymore.
I pulled my legs up to my chest, and a tear ran down my face.
“I’m not going,” I said to her just as Dr. Chawla walked by the chemo room. “I’m not going,” I said to him in an almost teenage-slam-the-door-what-are-ya-gonna-do-about-it tone.
All of the chemo patients sucked in air waiting for Dr. Chawla’s response.
They may have secretly been screaming, “Hell no we won’t go!”
But outwardly, they, like me, knew I wasn’t going anywhere but the hospital.
Dr. Chawla came over to my Lazyboy. I pulled my legs up tighter to my chest like I was assuming some sit-in stance. Mark was by my side getting ready to toss me over his shoulder and fireman carry me to USC’s transplant ward if need be. Vickie was shaking her head like she’d seen this tantrum so many times before.
“Why don’t you want to go?” Dr. Chawla said. He bent down in front of me, so his eyes were level with mine. There wasn’t condemnation or accusation in his eyes; he genuinely wanted to hear what absurd rational answer I could give him as to why I wasn’t going.
“Because if you stick me in the hospital today, I won’t be out for Thanksgiving … and… and the parade!” The lone tear turned into tears and then sobs.
Dr. Chawla patted my knees and looked at Vickie, “What are her counts?”
Vickie rambled off my near zero counts as Dr. Chawla took the lab report and studied it.
“If I promise you, you will be home on Thanksgiving for your Turkey– even if it’s for that one day– will you promise me you’ll go back to the hospital tomorrow.”
I shook my head emphatically yes.
Then he looked at Mark, “You’ll bring her back to the hospital; first thing in the morning?”
I knew he didn’t want me leaving unless I was perfect, but I was far from it. I was ninety-five pounds of faltering hope, and if a turkey dinner was what I needed then by God that’s what I was going to get. He shook his head and then lowered it in defeat.
“After this round, no more chemo cocktail,” Dr. Chawla said as he patted my legs and stood up.
“Wait, wait,” I pulled at his lab coat. It felt like punishment. He was taking away my chemo cocktail. “You said four rounds of cocktail. You said…”
“It’s okay, Mindy.” He walked back over to me and got back down on my level. “Three rounds is good enough.”
“But I can do four.”
“It’s not necessary.” He smiled his warm, hopeful smile. “After this you’re off chemo until your surgery. Vickie, schedule the surgery.”
I didn’t make it home for the kickoff of the parade, but I did make it home for Turkey. Next morning I checked back into the hospital for seven more days of transfusions in my isolation room.
Christmas was spent with me off chemo and getting ready for my January 4th surgery.
I woke up from the surgery to my mom whispering excitedly in my ear, “Mindy, wake up. They got it all! Your margins are clear. Mindy, wake up. 100% clear margins. Mindy, wake up. You did it. It’s all dead.”
When I went back to the chemo chair at the end of January, I was on the cleanup rounds. Five rounds of methotrexate and my chemo buddy, Kim, was back!
Round after round, month after month we sat in our black lazy boys and dreamed about the future. Kim wanted to walk down the aisle. Not walk on a crutch, not walk with a cane, she wanted to walk down the aisle. She wanted to be a mom. We talked about babies and kids. We even secretly plotted that she would have a girl, and I would have a boy and they would be fated lovers whose mother’s met in the chemo room.
Of course, that meant we both had to “come back on line”.
In May, Kim finished her last round and gave me a big hug on her second birthday. That’s what they call it when you’re unplugged for the last time. The chemo nurses and the patients sing happy birthday to you, because, from that day forward, you’ve been given a second chance at life.
“I’m going to check in on,” Kim said as she squeezed me goodbye. “You have my email and my cell. Call me if you need me.”
“I will.” I choked back the tears. I still had two rounds to go.
“I’m going to call you,” Kim said as she walked out the door.
It felt like I was being left in prison, and my friend was escaping. The room seemed to dull as Kim left. The hum of the chemo machines drowned out the melody of happy birthday. And we were back to saving lives.
June 25th, 2001 Dr. Chawla unplugged me for the last time. He smiled that ever-famous smile and said, “I’m so proud of you.”
I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that from him.
Vickie smiled and shook her head, “ Happy Birthday, Mindy. No more hospitals.”
My fellow chemo patients sang Happy Birthday.
I left happy … empty and scared.
I needed to call Kim. This couldn’t be normal.