Mom’s Got Cancer – Entry 4 – “The Hospital”
My mom’s recent cat scan had shown significant growth in her liver and she was not coping with the side effects of the afatinib tablets. The doctor initially put her on 40mg daily. Within a few days her face had completely swollen up so much that she could barely open her eyes. There were two short slits where her eyes used to be. I panicked and my heart broke. I told her to keep her sunglasses on as we went to see the doctor. He took her off the pill and reduced the dose to 20mg once the swelling went down. She was still struggling though. Her skin literally became very thin and she bled easily from her fingertips, nostrils, mouth and toes. Her tongue that was once coated in white toxic residue from all the chemo turned bright red. She developed an infection in her big toe after stubbing it and decided to stop taking the afatinib until it healed. She was off the afatinib for over a month. Her toe healed. Her bleeding stopped but the cancer grew. Her oncologist asked if she wanted to keep trying or “keep fighting”. Hello! Did he forget who he was talking to? How else would a 5ft, 89lb, 40 year old Japanese woman become a world record holder without strong will?! Of course she did not want to give up! So the doctor suggested a biopsy. Perhaps he could find something that she could tolerate.
The biopsy seemed to be a common procedure and we expected her to be out of the hospital after a few hours. I came to see her shortly after the procedure. She was in pain but not coherent. I asked the nurse for some pain medication as my mom by this point was moaning and getting more and more uncomfortable each minute. We tried keeping her on her stomach to stop any potential bleeding from the insertion. Her groaning was getting louder and the pain medication wasn’t working fast enough. She was throwing up and did not notice wetting the bed. I kept asking the doctors and nurses “Do you really think she’s ok to go home tonight?” After a few hours of trying to get her comfortable, the radiologist suggested keeping her overnight. Thank God! How was I going to be able to deal with this alone?
They moved her into the Emergency Room. I wasn’t really sure what was going on but stayed by her side and was surprised they let me. They took more scans to see if she was bleeding internally. Everyone was in a hurry and there was no time for introductions. They were trying to draw blood but my mom was so dehydrated and frail that they were having a hard time finding a decent sized vein. They poked her in both arms, hands and then started going for her neck but that didn’t work either. They reclined her bed so her body was slightly higher than her head to plump up the veins in her neck. I had a flashback to my baba when I saw her in the hospital having the same issues with her tiny veins. There were a couple of doctors and a handful of nurses crowding over my mom in somewhat of a panic. I felt as if we were on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy” and half expected Sandra Oh to walk in. The doctor in the ER came up to me and said, “Your mom is very sick. She is very, very sick.” Was this code for “She’s going to die?” I took it as that. Everyone but one nurse scurried out as we waited for the results of the scan to see what was next. I took this opportunity to tell my mom my final words. I held her hand, looked into her eyes and told her through sobs, she was the best mom ever and that I loved her very much. I turned into a five year old. These scenes are always eloquently scripted in movies but I couldn’t think of anything beautiful to tell her on what I thought was her deathbed. I just didn’t want her leaving me regretting anything. She looked at me and said in Japanese “Huh?! Am I going to die?” I answered, “I’m not sure but maybe.” My eyes were bloodshot from all the crying. Even though that nurse was standing in the corner of the ER room, it felt like it was just her and me, together for the last time.
The team came back into the room again after getting the results of her scan and said, “She’s ok. She’s stable. It doesn’t look like she’s bleeding right now.” I felt as if the entire room exhaled. I said, “Oh, good. Sorry for getting so dramatic.” They moved my mom into the ICU while they moved onto other patients in the ER. We were in a bubble where nothing outside these walls mattered.
The ICU was a nice change of pace. The nurse to patient ratio was almost one to one and no one was dying immediately. People were seated as oppose to standing and scrambling. My mom moved into a room with two beds, and one was unoccupied. She only took up about half the bed and was bundled up in the white hospital sheets. She looked like a little burrito. The nurse hooked her up to oxygen and was able to get an IV started. Her pain was managed. I climbed on top of the unoccupied bed and slept for a few hours, on and off helping my mom in the night when she had pain or had to use the bathroom. Being a parent, I was used to the every day routine of caring for someone. I noticed my conforming to our youth obsessed society as I took care of her though. Why couldn’t I see my mom’s aging body just like I did my children’s? Why didn’t I think my mom’s toothless mouth was as cute as my daughters when they were babies? Actually, she does look pretty cute without her teeth in.
I needed a shower and a change of scenery. I decided to go home and leave my mom for a night. I had been completely absorbed in my mom for the last two days. Meanwhile my daughters were completely involved in their lives. I didn’t have patience for anything that was unrelated to the healing process of my mom however. My ten year old, Blanca was asking about her Nutcracker rehearsals and details about her schedule, getting impatient with me for not having the answers. I snapped and said “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR NUTCRACKER REHEARSALS!!” There’s a mental rule book that every parent, before they become parents create on the dos and don’ts of parenting. Once you become a parent though, these hard rules turn into soft guidelines that may or may not need to be followed, e.g. “When possible, try not to swear in front or at your kids but if you do, don’t worry about it.”
Those next four nights out of the hospital were tough. My mom’s pain from the internal bleeding needed to be monitored. She was given 5mg’s of oxycodone to manage her pain. She hadn’t had a bowel movement the entire time she was at the hospital so they gave her a laxative. In hindsight, we both would’ve taken constipation over the laxative. My 8 year old Gabby came with me and she was there helping and loving her baba with only a couple minor meltdowns about missing school. Ever since my mom was diagnosed, I have been very open about baba’s health and have not sugar coated anything. We’ve spoken openly about death and the process of dying. In fact, ever since my kids were born, I have not sugar coated anything. A few years ago the girls asked me how babies were made. My answer, “the penis goes into the vagina”. I did not want them to be sheltered like I was.
After two nights at the hotel, the three of us moved into a guest apartment at the Willows, a retirement home right by the hospital and next door to the cancer clinic. It was one of the homes I was looking into. My mom was doing much better by this point but was still frail and on pain medication. She wasn’t eating much either. I decided to keep her in the retirement home as a guest for another week to see how she would adjust living there and to keep her close to care. I put all my energy into making the transition for her to live alone in Bellingham comfortable and was met with so much love and support from the staff. They had made dinner arrangements for her in the dinning hall each night with other babas and made sure she had everything she needed. I was really worried about my mom and how she would react being there without us. When it came time to leave, I planned it so that it would be right before dinner when she would be introduced to her dinner dates. When the time came to say goodbye, I started crying. I started crying so hard that I wasn’t able to finish my sentences. My mom was feeling sorry for me and told me everything would be fine. Her dinner dates tried comforting me too telling me not to worry and she would have a good time at the Willows. I had anticipated my mom having the hard time living without me but I did not realize it would be me that could not live without her.