That hospital smell

That hospital smell. Yuk.

It’s been a while since I’ve smelled that familiar and powerful smell. Yet as soon as I walked through the sliding glass doors for my CT scan, the smell of sickness, helplessness, confusion, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety flooded my senses. I’m back at the hospital for a scan of my chest and abdomen, to peer into the inner workings of this body of mine to determine if that wily cancer beast is setting up shop again.

As much as I hate being here, smelling that hospital smell, I’m strangely comfortable here. Although I haven’t had my all-important cup of coffee or one bite of breakfast, and although this is the last thing I want to be doing this morning, I’m not too grumpy. I know exactly where to park to get me closest to the Outpatient Imaging area. I proceed effortlessly to the hospital registration desk, the payment cubicle, and the Imaging reception area. The ubiquitous white ID bracelet circles my wrist like an old friend slipping her hand into mine. I recognize some familiar faces. There’s the kindly, grandfatherly volunteer who guides lost patients, so eager and proud in his dapper red vest and jaunty bow tie. There’s Christy the phlebotomist who remembered that I have young kids, and asked how they’re doing. There’s Mary the nurse who took pity on me when this cancer “journey” first began in May 2010 and I was in the imaging area all day for tests. She took pity on me and presented Amy and me with a pink Astros jersey, just in time for Mother’s Day. Another familiar face: Lily, who was my nurse in the OR during one of the many surgeries to try to contain the infection and clean up the swath of destruction it left in its wake. I first wrote about her a while back, and was tickled to see her smiling face today at Methodist. Lily is a breast cancer survivor herself, and she showed Amy and me the scars from her mastectomy years ago. Choosing to forego reconstruction, she put her cancer in the past and bore her horizontal scars with a quiet dignity and strength that often pops into my head. Imagine my delight when I see Lily ‘s face on a poster announcing her as the recipient of the 2011 Care Award. Well done, Lily, and well deserved.

Of the 12 others in Outpatient Imaging Waiting A, I’m the only one without an AARP membership. One woman is in her house coat, napping in her wheelchair. One is reading a large-print edition Agatha Christie novel. I’d be willing to bet I’m also the only one who packed kids’ lunches and juggled two different school drop-offs with my early morning appointment. Such is life as a “young” cancer patient.

I’m well prepared for my visit today, and look like a walking Apple ad with my iPhone, iPad, and iPod. The phone is the constant companion every mother of dependent children during school hours. The iPad is to distract and entertain, and the iPod is vital to block out the blare of the morning news show coming from the hanging TV. Today it’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 4 in D Major. Mozart reminds me to stay calm, don’t focus too much on the germ breeding-ground that is a hospital. Those of us who’ve contracted strange hard-to-treat infections after surgery tend to be on edge in the belly of the beast.

All set up with my personal electronic devices, I wait to be summoned to the back rooms of the imaging area. This is not my first rodeo, so I know what to expect: I’ll get an IV inserted in the crook of my arm (always a pleasure since my veins are so tapped out and reclusive after all this mess), then I’ll have to drink two big cups of gross-tasting liquid contrast that somehow goes down my gullet and lights up my belly for the abdominal scan.

It is not tasty.

I had hoped the pink labels on the cups would provide a clue as to exactly what this concoction is, but alas, that hope was not to be recognized.

Both times I’ve had an abdominal scan and had to drink the non-tasty drinks, I’ve been the only person in the entire waiting area to be served a beverage. The other patients waiting for their scans always stare, perhaps wondering why I’m so special as to get not one, but two special drinks.

I have one hour in which to drink this vile stuff, but I chug it down as fast as I can to get it over with. Christy, my phlebotomist/comedienne, quipped that if I had come after 3 pm she would have spiked my drinks for me.

After I’ve ingested all the non-tasty drinks and they’ve had time to light me up from the inside, I’m called back for my scan. Of course it’s freezing in the scan room, and because I’ve just chugged a 40 of cold nastiness, I’m a bit chilly. Christy makes my day by giving me a warmed blanket, and tells me to lie on the narrow “bed” of the CT scan machine. Once covered, she tells me to pull my jeans down to my knees — under the blanket — so the zipper and button don’t interfere with the scan. After drinking those awful drinks and enduring yet another needle stick, I’m not going to do anything to mess up this scan.

The machine starts clicking and whirring, and Christy and Lucas the technician tell me to raise my arms above my head, stretching them out as much as I can with the IV inserted. I do as I’m told, and Christy and Lucas leave the room. I’m all alone, except for the chugging of the machine and the computerized voice that tells me to breathe in, hold my breath, then breathe. This goes on for several cycles, then Christy comes back in to push the contrast dye into my IV for the chest CT scan. While this isn’t nearly as unpleasant as drinking the yucky drinks, it has the strange side effect of presenting a gross, warm sensation that is reminiscent of wetting your pants. Thankfully, this side effect was explained to me the first time I had the scan, so I didn’t panic.

It’s a weird feeling to actually feel something going into your veins. For this IV, I literally felt the needle entering my vein, and am happy to report that after all the needle sticks over the last 20 months, I’m not nearly as freaked out by this as I used to be. I don’t like it, but I don’t get sweaty palms over it anymore. I also felt the contrast push as it entered my vein, and I could feel it as it coursed through my bloodstream. Strange, unpleasant, and draining. I haven’t seen any clinical evidence to support this, but this whole experience wears me out, big time.

After the contrast spreads throughout its intended path, the computerized voice tells me to breathe in, hold, and breathe out a few more times, and then I’m done. By this time, my blanket is no longer toasty warm, and I’m more than ready to leave. Christy comes back in to remove my IV, and I’m all done. I feel a little woogity from all the junk that’s been injected into and ingested by my body and from the fact that it’s now getting close to lunchtime and I haven’t had a sip of coffee or a bite of breakfast. No matter, I’m done. I’m outta there, blowing off the stink of the hospital as fast as I can.

But here’s the rub, people: the fasting, the absence of coffee, the disruption of my morning routine, the sharp stab of the IV, the gross drinks, and the unpleasantness of the IV contrast are the easy part. Now, the waiting begins. Waiting to hear what shows up on those scans. Now that I’m well acquainted with my fellow cancer-chicks in the blogosphere, I know a lot more about breast cancer and recurrence than I used to. I’ve left the security of “we caught it early and think we got it all” for the real world of recurrence. Getting a glimpse into the harsh realities of metastatic breast cancer is a sobering experience. Through intrepid bloggers like the beloved Rachel and the eminently wise Susan and the witty Sarah (who had ovarian, not breast, cancer), I’ve learned first-hand that while being diagnosed with cancer, especially at a young-ish age, is scary, the really scary part is recurrence. We may think we’ve dodged a bullet or done our time or earned our freedom or whatever metaphor applies, but the truth is, it’s random and it’s scary. The periodic scans that make up the fabric of a cancer patient’s life are unnerving. There’s a delicate balance between wanting to be normal and being realistic. We hold our breath for the “all clear” while awaiting the blow that once again knocks the wind out of us and shatters our fragile peace.


19 Comments on “That hospital smell”

  1. David Benbow says:

    I’m pullin for you, girl!

  2. Barb Fernald says:

    Fingers crossed for the waiting period!
    For different reasons I also know I can feel that contrast going into my veins. Yuck.
    You’re a trooper!

  3. Eddie says:

    The truth is everyone is waiting for the unpleasant news, the confirmation of our mortality. It’s just that most of us fabricate an illusion of self-deception so that we can function in our daily lives without obsessing over our fate. People somehow embrace and believe the fiction that they will live a long and healthy life, that tragedy, misfortune, cancer are not in the cards for them. Truly impressive are those souls such as yourself who have had that illusion shattered and still keep living. I’m proud to call you my friend and am continually impressed by your strength of character and positive spirit.

  4. Waiting is definitely the hard part.

  5. hjelmstd says:

    With all of the awareness-raising and “education,” the fact and fear of recurrence often seem to be missing. Many people have said to me, “Well, I guess THAT’S over. You must be relieved.” Well, I’ll be relieved when I die of something else. Or maybe not!

    May I share one of my short little poems from my breast cancer book, Fine Black Lines, with your readers?


    I could live
    the rest of my life
    without it.

    But if cancer recurs
    can I count on
    the recurrence of
    hope and courage too?

    Good luck with the test. Waiting is the pits.

  6. Christy says:

    Waiting stinks…but I’ll wait with you…any place, any time 🙂

  7. Waiting is such a hard discipline. Rooting for you, girl! XOXO

  8. Great post! I read the funny parts to my daughter, and we laughed together (walking apple ad; blow off the stink of the hospital). But I left out the part about the fear of recurrence. When I first got diagnosed I thought, “Ok, get cancer, fight cancer, win the battle and maybe write a book about it.” The reality is, beating cancer the first time is the easy part. Keeping the monster away is our real challenge. I pray your scan is clear. God Bless.
    Cancer Warrior
    p.s. I remember as well going to the cancer clinic for the first time, and at 44, being the youngest one there. Cool when you are at a bar. Not so cool when you are sitting in the cancer clinic:)

  9. Stacey says:

    Just want to say, I’m thinking of you. Hopefully, you’ll hear good news soon. Hugs.

  10. Thinking of you too! Hoping an all clear for you!

  11. Boy do I relate! Isn’t it odd when we are so familiar with our hospitals, the staff and the routines? You’re right, it’s the waiting that’s hard to get used to, as well as the knowledge of possible recurrence. Sometimes I think we know too much for our own good.

    Great post. Hoping you get good results.

  12. Ronnie Hughes says:

    Uncomfortably great post, and should be required reading for anyone who thinks cancer brings any ‘gifts’ with it. Because ‘waiting’ certainly isn’t one.

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  14. Amy H. says:

    did you get the results yet? I’ve had people asking!!! And I wonder too! Is no news good news?

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  16. Thinking of you and hoping the scans come back clear. You are right, with all that prep and scanning – the worst by far is the waiting. As for that hospital smell . . . I used to slice oranges during chemo and suck on them so I could avoid the smell of the chemo ward. It didn’t always work, but the oranges were delicious.

    Fingers crossed for awesome results.


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