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Lincoln County News
December 16, 1999

"LifeLines" My journal about living with cancer

by Sandy Labaree

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This journal submission describes my stay at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. My visit is made pleasant by the excellent care and concern of my doctors, nurses, family, friends, and readers who all come through to buoy my spirits.

     December 4, 1999: I cannot believe that I have been in the hospital for five days. This is a record for me. During my mastectomy and breast reconstruction, I checked myself out of the hospital within one to two days, basically against orders. I am very stubborn and hate to be confined.

     Today, I am being moved to the Bodwell skilled nursing care unit off the main floor of the hospital. The level of care is still the same, but less acute. I am taken to a lovely private corner room with huge windows opening out on to woods and the Thornton Oaks retirement facility. I cannot believe my luck in getting such a delightful quiet room. The nurses say this is the best room in the hospital.

     I am still hooked to my morphine IV pump, my TENZ Unit and a mass of wires. I hate getting up out of bed and dragging all the wires, pole and paraphernalia into the hallway or bathroom. But mercifully, the pain control measures are working. Dr. Tom is still adjusting my morphine dose and the TENZ Unit has been a godsend. Its nerve pulsing electrodes have completely eliminated my back pain within five hours of installing the device. I am thrilled as I am running it at less than 1/3rd of its capacity and am getting excellent relief.

     Last week, I was supposed to get a Strontium 90 drug injection which is being used in prostate cancer patients with advanced metastatic bone disease. I agreed to be a guinea pig for a trial on breast cancer, hoping it could provide the same pain relief for my pelvic bone tumors.

     When the vial of Strontium arrived last week, it was damaged and a new one was ordered. Dr. McClintock, one of the head radiologists at Mid Coast Hospital will administer the injection. He visited me to discuss the procedure and said that the new vial will arrive this Tuesday. He explains that the injection will only take ten minutes and is relatively simple. Special precautions have to be taken to prevent the dye from seeping outside of the vein or under the skin. He sends Mimi, one of my favorite hospital IV therapists up to check out my vein situation. I like Mimi's kind and reassuring attitude. She occasionally fills in for Dr. Tom' office as needed in his chemo room.

     December 6, 1999: Today, is vein disaster day. My veins have been so stressed by five years of chemo, IV treatments and blood tests that several blew out today. My arms and hands are a mass of bruises. The IV therapists are at wits ends. Fortunately, Mimi is able to salvage one vein for the Strontium injection tomorrow. Dr. Tom says that we will have to move the morphine needle to a subcutaneous injection site. Though it sounds disgusting, the needle will be injected just under the skin in my abdomen. I have enough fat and tummy padding that I don't feel a thing! The placement of the needle is more awkward for moving around, but at least my arm veins are free, except for the one awaiting tomorrow's procedure.

     December 7, 1999: All goes well with my radioactive material procedure. Dr. McClintock is very friendly and reassuring. The biggest problem is fitting my hospital bed through the narrow entry door of the nuclear medicine room. I have visions of them using a chainsaw to remove the door moldings to get me through!

     Dr. Mc Clintock says that my only side effects will be some minor bone pain for a few days following the procedure. Tonight, my bones ache and I have a restless night's sleep. If all goes well, the Strontium injection should provide pain relief within a few weeks and could last for up to six or 8 months. Future injections are also possible after that time.

     I have had some fleeting pains in my breastbone, ribs and hip, plus some fluid retention, but nothing of any immediate concern. Dr. Tom says that he may x-ray my hip and do an ultrasound next week to check the fluid. Not much can be done for the sternum breastbone pain, but Tom suggests that acupuncture could possibly help, so I will keep this in mind for a later date. I am still having the uncomfortable roller coaster ride of laxatives and constipation, all caused by the morphine. I swear this is the worst part of all of my physical complaints.

     Of biggest concern to Tom now is my scarred and damaged veins that can no longer stand up to the IV infusions. Tom suggests I consider a portacath, a surgical device implanted under the skin of the collarbone. IV fluids can be administered directly and painlessly into the port, and in some cases, blood samples can even be drawn from the device. I should have had a port installed two years ago for my heavy duty chemotherapy, but true to form, I was too stubborn and was determined to tough it out! Tom suggests I meet with Dr. Peter Areson, a surgeon on staff who can do this procedure now during my hospital stay.

     I have known Peter for nearly ten years through the American Cancer Society. We have served together as volunteers on the local Society's Board of Directors. It is amazing how most of my doctors are trusted ACS professionals I have known as colleagues and friends for years. It makes for a very reassuring and strong doctor, patient relationship.

     Over the next few days, Peter comes in to visit and we discuss the surgical procedure. A catheter device will be threaded through my neck area, feeding into a port holder under the skin of the collarbone. The worst and trickiest part of the procedure is being tilted on your head as a fluoroscope monitors the placement of the catheter. The risk of problems and infections is relatively slim. Once a month, the portacath, a relatively low maintenance item, will be flushed out and cleaned with saline in Dr. Tom's office.

     Under other news of note, the past two weeks have been quite a challenge for Cuddles our new cat. It is hard to believe we have had him only about three weeks. He has healed up quickly from his declawing and has settled into his new role as king of the household. Obviously, he has been thrown into much confusion with my illness, hospitalization and the constant parade of helpers through my house. Yet, Cuddles has stepped up to his task of companionship and therapy cat.

     Ben has also been spoiling Cuddles with some laxness of discipline. Twice last weekend, Cuddles managed to steal three pancakes from Ben's breakfast plate, leaving tell-tale toothmarks behind. Cuddles is not really interested in table scraps, but is more curious in playing the role of taste tester. He has also been making some sneak bedtime attacks on Ben around 3 in the morning. Ben allows this behavior to continue far too long before closing Cuddles out of the room. Cuddles then wanders off and seems to make no further disturbances. I can see I will need to enforce a course of discipline retraining when I return home.

     We also received permission from the hospital to allow Cuddles to visit me in the evening. Ben brings him in with carrier box and leash. Cuddles then spends about 1/2 hour sniffing my room and checking for any new smells. Then he curls up on the bed with me for about 15 minutes. Before leaving, Cuddles walks on his leash to the nurses station where he visits for a few minutes and occasionally sits on the laps and nuzzles patients who enjoy cats.

     One evening this week, I had the pleasure of meeting Sherry, the catnapper lady. She makes polar fleece throws to protect furniture from cat fur. The throws are handmade and appliquéd with fish, mice and appropriate cat attractions. Last year, Sherry gave Lurk a gift of a catnappper which he loved and which we buried him in. Sherry wrote me a lovely note when she read about Lurk's passing and how he was buried in the catnapper. She was touched by the gesture and also offered her kind assistance to help me when I return home from the hospital. Sherry also came to visit me and Cuddles at the hospital, bringing me a gift of a comfortable body pillow and a personal catnapper for Cuddles. What a delightful lady and fellow cat lover who owns an endearing kitty named Lily.

     Other acts of kindness have touched me deeply. I have been swamped with cards, notes, letters and flowers from family, friends and readers, and daily visits and phone calls from my many friends. Of special note are the nurses, the first line of defense in the hospital. They have all been wonderful and caring. I cannot begin to list all their names and thank them personally, but they are true angels of mercy who have showered me with care and pampering. As much as I am looking forward to returning home, it will be hard for me to leave this atmosphere of nurturing and love.

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