12: Easy as A, B, C

12: Easy as A, B, C

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Easy as A, B, C

Being in a good frame of mind helps keep one in the picture of health.

~Author Unknown

I felt way more tired than a twenty-eight-year-old should so I went for a checkup. The blood tests came back. I had Hepatitis C.

I had no idea what it was but I figured having a virus wasn’t a big deal. So, when the doctor looked worried, sad even, I fought the urge to put my arm around his shoulders to console him. I asked a few questions, but the walls in the rooms began to move in on me and his voice became white noise and I couldn’t understand anything. He pulled out a prescription pad and wrote “Liver Biopsy.” I didn’t know what that was either. He gave me a number to call and I left.

The breeze felt good as I walked past Columbus Circle and back to my office. From a private conference room I called Susan, my M.D. friend who worked for Doctors Without Borders.

“Do you know what Hepatitis C is?”

“Yes, it’s a horrible disease, usually chronic. The liver erodes. It causes cirrhosis.”

“But it can be cured, right?”

“Sometimes. Or people can get a liver transplant. But the body can reject the new liver and then the patient dies. Why are you asking me?”

“I just came from the doctor. He said I have Hepatitis C and . . .”

“What?” Susan gasped.

“The doctor said to see a gastroenterologist, whatever the heck that is. And I need a biopsy.”

“Oh my God,” she said, panicky, like I’d be dead in ten minutes.

I looked up “Best Doctors” in the latest issue of New York magazine and made an appointment. Dr. Gastroenterologist was out-of-network so my insurance said no to his three-hundred-dollar fee but I went anyway.

I told friends about my diagnosis but each one shot me a look of pity that said, “You’re a goner,” so I quit talking about it.

Once in Dr. Gastro’s office I asked questions. He had olive skin, an aquiline nose and stood six feet tall. I imagined him naked until he opened his mouth. He sounded cranky and superior, which made me want to kick him. His dour expression and blank stare reminded me of actors playing sociopaths on Lifetime. So much for bedside manner.

He explained the virus in minute detail, which I appreciated, then showed me a poster with illustrations of a healthy liver versus an inflamed, swollen, undesirable one. I began to sweat and sat down. He told me to schedule a biopsy with the “girl” at the desk, who was old enough to be my mother. The address for the test was a hospital. That made me want my mommy, though I hadn’t called her that since grade school. I hadn’t even told my parents yet — I was loath to worry them — but my attempt at maturity gave way to fear. I called them for support. As always, they were willing to drop everything and come to the appointment with me. Relief loosened the tension in my neck — a smidgeon.

When it was time, we three went to the hospital. My father’s brow was furrowed, but it usually was anyway. Mom was grinding her teeth, jaw muscles twitching as she stared at the drab, gray carpet. Their nervousness was infectious but I was grateful they were there.

Finally, a woman in white shoes and whiter smock led me to a room, handed me a cotton shmata and instructed me to put it on, opening to the front. After twenty minutes, and with goose bumps on my legs, I was led to a bed on wheels. A nurse gave me a round blue pill that looked like a Valium and told me it would make me sleepy.

Next thing I remember: Dr. Gas-Man stuck a biopsy needle in and yanked out a piece of me. I hadn’t felt the slice of the blade thanks to local anesthesia but when he snatched that piece of liver it felt like I’d been sucker punched and I couldn’t catch my breath. He rolled me onto my right side — right where it hurt. I was in agony as a nurse wheeled me into post-op.

In a follow-up visit with Gastro-Guy he said the biopsy showed my liver was normal size and that was very good. Then he prescribed a regimen of interferon alpha-2b. He showed me a sample kit with syringes and told me I’d have to inject it. Just seeing the needles filled me with terror. He recited side effects in a disconnected monotone. “Many patients experience flu-like symptoms, suicidal depression, and . . .”

Wait a minute, I thought. That sounded worse than what I had. He handed me a prescription that I knew I was never going to fill. When I got home, I called friends to ask if they knew any good doctors.

My friend from Woodstock sent me to a nutritionist whose specialty was “holistically healing chronic diseases.” Her hair was wavy and long, her blouse loose, her skirt flowery — she looked like she’d just come from a Grateful Dead concert. With a warm smile she asked many questions. I watched as she wrote a customized chart in curlicue script. I was to eat millet with carrots on Mondays, brown rice with celery on Tuesdays, barley soup on Wednesdays and so on. At the top of the chart she wrote, “No sugar. No soda. No processed foods of any kind.” The thought of life without Diet Coke or Ben & Jerry’s made me want to die. Thankfully she wasn’t expensive. I shoved her handwritten chart in my pocket and left, thinking, “Next.”

Doctor number five was an organ specialist. “I treat everything from the mouth to the anus,” he said. How lovely for him. Like Gastro-Man, he suggested interferon. When I asked about the success rate, he said, “50-50.”

“So, half are cured?” I said.

“Not exactly. Of the half that respond well to interferon alpha-2b, half of those see the virus return after six months and need to repeat the treatment.” I thanked him, left, and thought, “Next.”

Help came when I met doctor number ten. I’d heard of him through a family friend who’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer and given two months to live. After she put herself in the care of this man, she lived another ten years. Dr. Gerald Epstein was smiley and chubby like Santa. He welcomed me by cupping my hand in both of his. It felt gentle and caring and I liked it. He showed me his book, Healing Visualizations: Creating Health Through Imagery, then asked me what I liked to do. I told him I liked working as a commercial artist but really loved to paint. That’s when he said, “I want you to paint a perfectly healthy liver, hang it next to your bed, and stare at it every morning when you wake and again when you go to sleep. Imagine that your liver is as perfect as that painting.”

Skeptical, I expressed doubts and confessed my fears of slowly dying with chronic pain from cirrhosis.

“Forty percent of people with chronic Hepatitis C live out their entire life with no symptoms and die of old age. Just be in that forty percent.”

He said it so matter-of-factly it sounded as easy as Abraham Lincoln saying, “People are as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

I borrowed an illustrated medical encyclopedia and studied the healthy liver as I rendered it with acrylic paint on watercolor paper. It took two hours and looked perfect. I bought a frame, hung it on my bedroom wall, then meditated on it as if it were an exact replication of my own liver.

Dr. Epstein also told me to get annual blood tests to keep an eye on my liver enzymes, eat healthy, and stay away from toxins — drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and processed foods. That was twenty-five years ago. I’ve followed all of his advice and now I’m fifty. My liver enzymes are as low as they were when I was first diagnosed. They are only slightly elevated, just enough to show that the virus is still in my system but it is dormant. I just got a liver ultrasound that showed my organ is the perfect size and color. Just like the one in my painting. That’s what positive thinking did for me.

~Dorri Olds

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