Harrison’s previous monthly hospital visit was for sedation and chemo administration in his spine. Why his spine? Because God designed human bodies with certain safeguards. One of this is the blood-brain barrier. Blood can pass through this barrier, but anything larger than a blood cell cannot. Additionally, many medicines–including chemotherapies–cannot either. This is to protect our brain from unwelcome intruders. Unfortunately, since leukemia cells are merely messed up blood cells, they enter the brain without detection. Chemo, though, is prevented from passing through.
So once every three months Harrison is sedated and the oncologist injects methotrexate through a lumbar puncture to be sure drugs get to his brain. This is why many kids get “chemo brain,” affecting their memory, learning, etc. Just another part of the process.
Ginger and I try to be sensitive in the clinic to families that may be new, or that many need a little encouragement. After all, we have to be there, why waste the time watching TV when we can spend it helping fellow travelers. There have been so many to help us, we can’t help but pass it on.
While Harrison was in recovery I overheard another family asking their nurse some familiar questions. I didn’t recognize this family, which can only mean one thing at the clinic: they are new to the hell that is childhood cancer. And their questions betrayed their recent entry into our world. Childhood cancer newbies.
Their questions were exactly the same as the ones we asked a year ago. The same questions I’ve heard countless moms and dads ask nurses and oncologists. Questions that the experienced have dealt with, but newcomers never imagined they would ask.
It was sad to hear. My heart was heavy for this mom and dad. I knew their pain. I know it even now.
Personally, it was even sadder because I could tell exactly which phase of treatment they were in, and which type of cancer their child had. Just from the questions. I said to myself, “Just finished Induction and moved into Consolidation.” Hate that I even know those words in this context.
So I introduced myself to them, as I try to do with every family that joins our new world. I recall Hunter and Nicole introducing themselves to us, and how much Ginger and I appreciated it. Nicole said, “We could tell from the look on your face that you were new.” She smiled. We didn’t.
Now the tables are turned. The look on their faces screamed, “What am I doing here?!”
Their eight year old son has played baseball just around the corner from our house. A little boy asleep on a hospital bed. Enjoying the effects for propofol (all the kids love it). And when he woke up, he would receive a blood transfusion to keep him alive. Some anonymous blood donor had spent an hour on a table just so this little boy could live another day.
We exchanged pleasantries. I told them I wished we had met on the baseball field rather than in the clinic. His parents, almost frozen with angst, asked, “Do you think our son will play baseball this year?”
Normal. That’s all any childhood cancer parent wants: normal for their daughter or son.
Their son is almost exactly, to the day, where Harrison was a year ago. We told them his story, and how much baseball meant to him. And how important it was to Harrison to be able to play, as best as he could, the game he loved so much. I told them that kids need to be as normal as they could, to help fight the disease. How Harrison would walk outside the dugout, throw up from the chemo, and push himself to get back on the field. How he hated that his legs didn’t work the same, but he would give every ounce of what little energy he possessed. How only a hospital stay could keep him off the field.
And how determination is part of healing.
I saw the fear in their eyes when they asked, and the joy on their faces as they heard Harrison’s story.
After their little boy woke up and met Harrison, the conversation turned to college baseball. This new friend is a Tar Heel. You know what that meant: let’s meet at the UNC-State game.
We’ll need to be there to comfort them after the Wolfpack victory! I told them about St. Baldricks. About baseball players shaving their heads to raise money and awareness. About intense rivalries set aside because of greater priorities.
When I walked into the cancer hospital that morning I thought to myself, “Even after fifteen months this is not any easier.” And it isn’t.
But when I walked out I thought, “I have to keep coming here, not just for my son, but for the sons, daughters, moms, dads, sisters, and brothers who need to know that a year from now things can be better. Not easier, but better.”
Every new family that walks into the pediatric oncology clinic for the first time only wants to hear one thing: There. Is. Hope.
And there is.