By Wayne Johnston
The girl at the computer terminal turns and smiles as though she’s glad I’m here, and I step through the open doorway out of hallway dimness into fluorescent brightness, organized clutter and the intimacy of the small room. She’s blonde, in her thirties, a little plump and wearing no make-up. I imagine her mothering small, well-behaved children when she’s not here. If I’ve seen her before, I don’t remember.
“I need to give you some blood,” I say.
She motions to the familiar seat, beige plastic supported by chrome tubing. Once I’m in the seat, the board-like armrest folds down and traps me like a child in a high chair. I lay out my right arm, exposing access to the vein that runs up the inner side of the elbow joint. The arm is no longer tracked and bruised, and the vein is well hidden. She questions me with her eyes. She wants the slip from the doctor.
“Oncology.” I give my name and cut my eyes at the worn cardboard accordion file folder on a shelf above her computer. She studies me for a split second, and I see her understand as she takes down the folder and finds my order. She’s quiet as she selects the correct syringe and vials for my blood, and she only says the minimum as she feels for the vein, finds it and sticks the needle in. She’s good; the needle pricks but doesn’t hurt.
There’s something strangely enticing about the feeling of the needle in my arm, an association with intense emotion, fear and anticipation of hopeful news combined. It nearly always induces the same vision in my mind, something I witnessed long ago, and the image momentarily reappears as the needle pierces my flesh. It was in the sixties and I was eighteen. The girl was the same age, or maybe younger. My generation had discovered drugs and a high school friend who had gone hippie was living in an old house on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
I didn’t know the girl and never saw her before or after. She was an acquaintance of the friend. She was shooting heroin, and I was invited to watch. Her mousy hair was unwashed, oily and her color was bad as mine has become. She was skinny and looked unhealthy. When I entered the room she barely glanced up; she was focused and intent on the ritual with the powder in the teaspoon, the few drops of water, the candle flame, the syringe and tourniquet. She found the vein and winced as she forced the needle in. She depressed the plunger, slowly pushing the liquid from the syringe into her bloodstream. In a single wave her body relaxed and her eyes glazed with serenity. It was like watching an orgasm. Someone else took the needle out.
It’s that wave of serenity that comes up in my mind when the needle goes in. I envy it, long for it, and it doesn’t happen. They’re not putting potentially lethal happiness in; they’re taking blood out, like taking an oil sample from a malfunctioning engine, reading a gauge. They’re looking for mutant cells, contaminants that are destroying the machine from the inside. Blood draws are the physical events that punctuate my life. The needle goes in. The blood comes out. The seers read the signs in the blood and tell me my future, and my need to know seems almost stronger than my hope or fear.
We watch my blood pulse into the glass tubes.
After she removes the needle, she puts a cotton ball over the puncture to absorb the leakage. I press down on it until she gets a piece of tape to hold it there. I can feel her concern, and sense that she would say something comforting if she knew she had the right words.
“Wish me luck,” I say as I stand to leave.
She gives me a grim smile. ” We’re not too busy right now, so the results should print out at the clinic within the hour. You take care.”
The blood draw ritual is over. It carries the anticipation of laying the cards face up on the table in a high stakes game. The dealing is done. The composition and chemistry of my blood are no different now than they were before the needle. If my blood is again filling up with cancerous cells, not knowing won’t make it go away. Knowing won’t do much to fix it either. There are no aces up the sleeve, and bluffing is pointless. We’re playing our best cards and if they’re not good enough, the next stage is finding a way to deal with the results, deciding how to use the time.
The suspense seems almost more excruciating than facing grim reality. It’s exhausting and enticing. It would be easy to let go, give up. Even though Hope came out of Pandora’s box last and with a broken wing, it doesn’t die easily.
Not long ago, people waited weeks for results of similar tests, agonizing weeks. I live close to a hospital with a good lab. The doctors and nurses at the oncology clinic are like personal trainers, coaching me through this, the real struggle that every test and competition in my life so far has been a dry run for. They give me the details, let me read the same medical journal articles they read. They talk straight whether the news is good or bad and try to find a way to help me deal with it. An hour wait isn’t bad. But it’s still a long hour.
In reality my fate, my sentence, is no different from the lab lady’s or the doctor’s, or yours. No one gets out of life alive, but we push the immediacy away to when we’re old, next year, next week, tomorrow. So here I am with an hour to kill waiting for numbers that will help me decide what to do with my immediate life. The likelihood of looming finality heightens the intensity. Two weeks ago my blood counts were still very low. My immune system is almost non-existent. If I catch a cold or eat some bad tuna, I’ll probably die from it. Today’s odds are less than even in my favor. They shot the silver bullet and it should have worked by now.
I’m not alone in the waiting area. There are three of us in the half dozen chairs here at the end of a long hallway. The printer where the blood test results will arrive is halfway down the hall. I keep listening for it to come alive, the dot matrix buzz translating my fate to numbers on a page. Our end of the hall is lined on one side with three examining rooms that have paper-thin walls. We are sitting in a dead end beyond the door from the main corridor of this wing. The area has been made cozy with nicely upholstered chairs and lamps that shed soft light. Because of what happens here, it has a more intimate feel than the cramped, make-do waiting room it is.
At the opposite end of the clinic there’s a treatment room set up like a living room with recliners around a TV. The two hospital beds near the far wall can be screened off by curtains. Outpatients come here for chemo treatments. Some of them watch TV while the chemicals are dripped into their blood. I’ve had my bone marrow drawn on one of those beds.
I am acutely aware of the other two patients waiting with me in the close space at my end of the hall. We acknowledge each other but don’t speak. They’re not together though they’re close in age. He’s chemo-bald under his baseball hat. His face has that hollow grey jaundiced look, but his dark eyes are alive and pleasant. They’re both younger than I am, probably mid-thirties. She looks frozen scared.
When I’m moved to an examining room and the nurse comes through the open door, she seems hurried and is all business. She’s probably in the middle of a treatment with another patient down the hall. She has the single sheet of white paper from the printer. She puts it inside the cover of my fat file. I can’t read her face. Droplets of sweat form on my scalp, armpits and back. The moment of truth. I want to snatch the paper from her. On her way out the door, she stops and looks at me. It hits her.
“You want to see it.”
I can’t speak.
“I guess it’s all right. He’ll be here soon to explain it, and you probably don’t need much explanation.”
She takes the paper from the folder and hands it to me then is gone. The critical count is at the top of the column and my eye focuses immediately on the little black number.
It’s up. Nowhere near normal, but up considerably from the 1.2 of the last draw. The bottom end of normal is 3.8, but something positive is finally happening.
I get that rubbery feeling in my legs and am glad I’m not standing.
Copyright 2014 Johnston