By: Barry Stebbing
The doctor pauses, looks at Saundra in somber silence before saying, “I am sorry to inform you, but you have Acute Myeloid Leukemia.” The silence becomes deafening. So many questions fumble through our minds. He would go on to say that it was terminal. With heavy treatment of chemotherapy, she may live two years; without it – call Hospice. We stagger back into the world. In the blink of an eye, everything becomes unfamiliar as we have now entered into a strange and painful extremity of life. Lost and bewildered, there are no road signs, just a maze with all paths leading to hopelessness.
My wife and I are not medical people, naive in connecting the dots with technology and various clinics, treatments and trials, as we grasp for a straw of hope. There are good intentioned people along the way with their recommendations literally taking us around the world for treatments. All to no avail, as there was no positive resolve. We continue to scrape an empty pail.
The past nine months have been extremely debilitating. Living rather isolated on a farm, there has been no support group, little family interaction, and few friends. Such is life; and the entire responsibility of Saundra’s care has been placed on my shoulders. Little did I know so many years ago the profound depth of our marriage vows, taking my spouse, “through sickness and in health … for better or for worse…” Now somber lamenting, I feebly care for her as best as possible.
Quite supernaturally, we happen upon the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, NC. Miraculously, it is only a two-hour drive from our home. With a deep sigh of relief we would receive encouraging news from one of the doctors that there was much hope for recovery. With recent technology, Saundra was no longer considered too old for a stem cell transplant. Gradually we begin to meet other AML patients, observing wave upon wave of patients stricken with cancer or leukemia silently peering from beneath their masks. At first there is a sense of awkwardness in approaching them; but, with sincerity, an engaging conversation soon transpires. My first question generally is, “What have you been diagnosed with?” Followed by, “How long?” In time, my attention turns to the caregiver, slowly discovering a very special type of individual who bears the cross of pure compassion and humble stoicism, each with their own unique story to tell. Who would think one could find such enlightenment and inspiration within a cancer ward? It is truly a paradox of life.
Before entering into the care of the American Cancer Association, we harbored many misconceptions. However, with our introduction to the Levine Cancer Institute and the compassion from both doctors and nurses, we quickly altered our way of thinking. Such a sincere embrace was like a breath of fresh air and would even be manifested by the American Cancer Society (many of whom are cancer survivors). And, let us not forget the heart of the National Bone Marrow Link, good Samaritans found along the way who also gave us tremendous hope for a return to a healthy life in the foreseeable future. Such compassion has proven to be an intangible essential, an inexpressible balm on the road to healing.
As we discover more and more caring souls, my thoughts always return to those unsung heroes on the front lines, the day-in and day-out laborers who stoically tend to their masked loved ones. The other day I noticed a heavy-set man wheeling his fragile wife into a restroom. Silently, he backed the wheels in and closed the door behind them, tending to her needs. This somber world of ours is redolent with such Christ-like caregivers, as countless as the stars, all of whom have become my inspiration and role models. As the world passes by, in all its perceived merriment, there seems to be a new substance to this life and Charles Dickens’ words ring true, Tis a far, far better thing that I do now than that which I have ever done.