65. The Very Bad Diagram

65. The Very Bad Diagram

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Very Bad Diagram

We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same.

~Francesca Reigler

When you’re twenty-three, you don’t expect to discover that you’ve been harboring a tumor that’s determined to kill you — a tumor that’s a rare form of advanced ampullary pancreatic cancer.

But that’s what happened to me. It was 2008, and I’d fainted at work in what turned out to be a grand mal seizure. Then after a few days of stubbornly insisting I was just tired, I’d stumbled into the emergency room with my friend Hartman, still hoping I only needed a vitamin or two.

But nope. I was actually dying.

Within seventy-two hours, I had an official diagnosis: a massive pancreatic tumor that was bleeding into my abdomen.

It all felt unreal. A few days earlier, I’d been a typical twenty-something, a young woman still new to Vegas and ambitious to build a business. Now everything was upside down. I had a massive tumor and faced a surgery called the Whipple procedure that would basically reconstruct my digestive tract. And then, of course, I’d still have to find out whether it was actually cancer.

Okay, I thought, I can do this. But it felt like a lie. I did not feel like I could do this at all. But I just kept saying it, hoping for belief.

I’d taken the news well at first — as well as I could. Dr. Casey had been kind but also no-nonsense about the fact that I’d need the surgery — and that was when I began to panic. I’d been poked, prodded, and scanned, alternating between fear and frustration on a constant basis. Now Dr. Casey was back, and without much preamble, described the tumor they had found.

“So that’s the situation,” he said quietly. “We need to act fast. Alicia, we have to do the Whipple.”

I thought I’d be brave. But I wasn’t. I started to cry.

Dr. Casey sat there, quietly, listening to me cry. Then after a few minutes, he picked up a marker, and drew a big scrawly diagram on the whiteboard on the wall at the foot of the bed. He was showing me in the simplest way what the Whipple procedure would entail.

He wasn’t a good artist. He was actually a really bad one. But bad drawing or no, he was getting the point across. And it looked like a huge surgery, as he drew a shaky human figure — me — then drew the lines resecting my stomach, my pancreas, my gallbladder, and drew more lines on my small intestines. From the looks of this, they were going to cut me in half.

“You want to do that to me?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “Because this is the best option we have to save your life, me and Dr. Lau. It will remove the tumor that is killing you.”

“Or it’ll kill me,” I said.

He nodded. “Which is why you need family here,” he said. “Where’s your mother?

I looked at the diagram and took a deep breath. I hadn’t wanted to involve my family from so far away. I’d wanted to be strong.

But he was right. “She’s in Florida.”

“She should be here.” He waited for me to respond. “Right?”

“Okay,” I said. “Schedule it. I’ll call her.”

Dr. Casey smiled. “Good,” he said. “I’ll see you Thursday morning.” He patted my shoulder, then left.

I cried a little more, then looked at that terrible scribble of a drawing on the whiteboard and steeled myself. I picked up the phone, and did what I should have done sooner — I called my family and asked them for help. I called my mom, my grandma, my Aunt Sherry, needing the connection of family. They were all so far away — I was in Vegas, Mom was in Jacksonville, my aunt in Boston. They were upset by the news, but I felt the love and support flowing through the phone.

And on Thursday morning, Mom was there, next to my friend Hartman, after flying all night to get there for my surgery. I opened my eyes to the sight of my exhausted mom, cherishing that we had these moments together before the operation. We just held hands and smiled at each other, but her presence was exactly the comfort I’d needed.

Then came the moment of truth. Nurses and aides came in to prepare me, adjusting and disconnecting my IVs, tubes and wires so that they could wheel me into surgery and then transfer me to the operating table.

Mom and Hartman said their goodbyes, looking scared and worried, and I hugged each of them as hard as I could, awkwardly from the gurney, telling them I loved them. “See you on the other side,” I told them, trying for cheerfulness.

Mom smiled through her tears. “We will.” She nodded. “We’ll see you soon.”

I didn’t want them to be afraid for me. I wanted them to think I was confident. But I had never been so scared in my life. I kept trying to breathe naturally, kept telling myself, “You can do this!”

Then a very strange thing happened.

As they began to roll me into the operating room, I experienced a huge wave of calmness, and a certainty I had never felt before.

I heard my own voice in my head: “I can do this. I’m going to be fine.” The certainty was as strong as the fear had been. I felt calm, protected. I felt almost eager, wanting to see what would happen next.

In a blaze of light and swinging doors, I entered the operating room. Even as they moved me to the operating table, I watched the incredible precision of the activity around me. It was very organized, quick and calm, a kind of dance.

“You okay?” asked Dr. Casey.

“You bet,” I said. The room buzzed with activity. So many people in scrubs and masks, that sharp smell of antiseptic in the air, the shiny instruments that would soon be cutting around in my abdomen. It didn’t feel real.

“Alicia? You ready to do this?” asked Dr. Lau. His eyes crinkled above the surgical mask.

I looked at my brave doctors who were so confident they could save me. I looked around the room, at these talented people who would fix me and remove my tumor, the terrible invader that I wanted out of my body. I felt a wave of calmness and trust. It was out of my hands and into theirs.

I smiled, gathering everything I had into this feeling of strength, joy and absolute certainty.

“Absolutely,” I said. “Let’s rock this.”

I saw the surprise in their faces, then they glanced at each other and smiled. Dr. Casey laughed. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

I was still smiling as I fell into the warmth and darkness of anesthesia. This wouldn’t defeat me. I was made of stronger stuff. And I knew it was the truth.

I can do this. I took a deep breath, smiled, and slept.

~Alicia Bertine

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