Angel Hugh

Angel Hugh

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Angel Hugh

If you are going through hell, keep going.

SirWinston Churchill

“Try my feet,” I groaned. “I’ve got some good veins there.” The IV needle in my hand had stopped working, and an exhausted young doctor was unsuccessfully trying to insert a new one. She had been at it for half an hour. At midnight on a Friday, she was the only doctor on duty in the oncology ward of this National Health Service hospital in central London, and for me, she was the only game in town. I knew she’d been on duty for far too many hours, but I didn’t really care. I had my own problems.

“I’ll give you one more shot at it, then I’m done. I’ll drink the damn blood, the antibiotics, the acyclovir, whatever you want. But after this one, I’ve had enough.” I gritted my teeth, grabbed the cold iron bed frame and tried not to cry out. Vampira dug around, looking for a vein on my foot. She stabbed. She stabbed again.

“I can’t do this,” and she stood, hands shaking. “I’ve done twenty of these today, and I did them perfectly well. You’ve had so much chemo, your veins just won’t cooperate.” She angrily pulled the curtain back and stomped out into the ward.

I had an infection in the central line they had surgically implanted in my chest, as well as an adverse reaction to my first high dose of chemotherapy. My white blood count had dropped, and a fever had gone so high that it gave me the shakes. I was at the nadir of my nadir. And all I wanted now was for it all to stop. All of it.

The last weeks had seen me in and out of the hospital in preparation for the high doses of chemotherapy I was soon to receive. Each visit meant a different bed, a different view of the same gray-green walls and mostly different faces. Unlike American hospitals with their double or triple patient rooms, this was one large ward, with approximately twenty beds separated only by the curtains you were allowed to draw around. It was a mixed sex ward, but we had all lost our modesty along with our privacy. Personal dignity had somehow ceased to matter.

Most of my fellow patients were asleep, and I sat in my curtained cubicle, legs crossed, a red velvet hat on my bald head, listening to their snores and grunts. I dreaded the next chapter of my nightmare and had stopped trying to imagine just where the plot was headed.

Suddenly, the ward sister flung my curtain wide. “This is Hugh from the intensive care unit.” And she was gone.

“Nice hat,” Hugh said with a grin, as he gently pulled the curtain shut.

“Bet you’re bald as a coot under there.” I tried to smile.

“May I?” and he took a seat beside me on the bed. “What’s the problem?” He looked me over, as though buying a used car. “I see a lot of places we can get a needle in.” He counted the little Band-aids plastered over all the failed attempts on my arm and hand. “Thirteen,” he exclaimed in wonder.

I shook my head. “You missed my feet.”

He shook his head back at me. “And before every one, the doc said, ‘This won’t hurt a bit.’ Right?” He laughed. “You ever hear the one about the guy who wanted to castrate his cat?”

I shook my head, slower this time. Was this guy going to tell me a joke?

Didn’t he have a life to save, a phone call to make, a nap to take?

Hugh continued. “He didn’t have any money to go to the vet, so his best friend tells him, ‘I’ll do it for you. It’s simple. You hold the cat. I get a couple of bricks, and I hold ’em one in each hand. Like this. When the cat’s nice and calm, I do this.’ And the best friend slams the two bricks together. The cat owner is appalled. ‘Won’t that hurt?’ he whispered. ‘Oh, no,’ replied the best friend. ‘Not as long as I remember to keep my thumbs up.’”

Hugh grinned even wider. And I laughed for the first time in days, as much at his enjoyment as at the joke.

In a low, conspiratorial voice, he went on, “So the doc was right. It didn’t hurt her a bit.” I laughed again. “Now I’m going to numb this bit of your hand with a little cream, and we’ll wait a minute for it to work. No need for any more pain than you have already, right?” We waited.

Hugh cocked his head. “They tell me you’re having a hard time?” A pause, and he continued. “I had a Jeep accident in Africa a few years ago. My girlfriend and my friend were killed, and I was in the hospital for six months. It was a pretty dark time. It might have been something like what you’re going through now.” He was almost whispering.

“You don’t want to do this anymore, do you?” I nodded, hesitantly. It was hard to admit in a world that admired fighters that I wanted to quit, to give up, to give in.

“I always compare it to mal de mer. You know, seasickness? When you’re in the middle of a channel crossing to France, and the boat is heaving, and you’re being sick over the side, all you want is for it to stop. You just want to die. But when you get to the other side, you can’t believe you ever felt that way.”

Hugh looked straight into my eyes. “You’re going to get to the other side of this, and you won’t believe you ever felt the way you’ve felt tonight.”

I could feel my tears. “Now, let’s get this needle in. There. Done. Perfect.” And it was.

He stood to go. “If you have any more trouble, have them page me, and if I’m in the hospital, I’ll come.” He stopped at the curtain and turned back. “I’m not a very good fortune teller, but I’m a heck of a good bookie. You know what I say? You’re going to make it.” With that, he was gone.

It’s now seven years since I finished my high-dose chemotherapy and the radiotherapy that followed. My health remains robust, and though others may say I am in “remission,” I consider myself “cured.” Out of my experience came my first play, “Gone to L.A.,” a black comedy about breast cancer, which will be made into a film later this year. In it, one of my favorite characters refers to “Angel Hugh from ICU,” the guy who can “cannulate your friggin’ earlobe.”

When “Gone to L.A.” opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London, I was pleased that a great number of the family and friends who helped me through my illness were among the audience. It made me laugh inside to know that Angel Hugh was one of them.

Lolly Susi

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