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Lincoln County News
December 9, 1999

"LifeLines" My journal about living with cancer

by Sandy Labaree

This journal submission describes a fun Thanksgiving day with our daughter, Christy, and our son-in-law, Nils. Later this week, what I thought would be a short emergency admission to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick turns into at least a one week stay.

Thursday, Nov. 25, 1999: We had a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, and Christy's turkey was a complete success! Since we cooked it with the stuffing separately, it only took about 2 3/4 hours to roast it to perfection. We all pigged out on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, peas, carrots, turnips and all the other fixin's, including pumpkin and apple pies. I ate more than I have eaten in the past month! Even Cuddles got into the act by having sliced turkey treats. The rest of our day is spent watching the Macy's Day Parade and several football games on TV. Of course, all of my family called to check in to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, Nov. 26, 1999: Despite my pains, I decide to go do a little Christmas shopping with Christy. She has made out a Christmas shopping list for me. We stop at Big Al's and Flowers By Pepee. That is all I can take, and I am exhausted and in more pain by the time we return home.

While Christy and I shopped, Ben and Nils went on an expedition to the hardware store for painting supplies and paint chips. Since I have been more or less housebound, the ugly wallpaper in the hallway and kitchen and the dark paneled wall in the living room have been getting on my nerves. The obvious answer is a painting project.

I find that if I remain flat on my back in bed, I am comfortable. Christy comes it and sits on the bed with her laptop computer and I start to dictate my column to her. We get it roughed out and she e-mails it to me so I will have it in my computer for the final editing.

By mid afternoon, the pain has become more severe when I try to move, so Ben calls Dr. Tom's office. He decides to try me on an oral form of morphine plus another pain killer, one that I had used with some success earlier in the summer before I started the vomiting reaction to the heavy duty medications. Ben makes a fast trip to Brunswick for the prescriptions. Morphine and other narcotic prescriptions cannot be phoned into the pharmacy; they must be written by the physician.

When Ben returns from the pharmacy, we sit down to one of my favorite dinners, turkey leftovers. We certainly have plenty of them, and I do enjoy our evening meal, despite the pain.

Saturday, Nov. 27, 1999: Today, Christy helps me write replies to a stack of cards and letters, mostly from my readers, and mostly in response to my column about the loss of Lurk. I have been amazed at the number and variety of sympathy cards that are available for the loss of a pet. Of the dozens I have received, there have been no duplicates.

Early in the afternoon my pain is still getting worse, in spite of the new drugs. I abandon the recliner for my bed. I am just getting settled when a sudden, severe attack of nausea hits me. This is a familiar problem for me on the heavier duty drugs. Almost without warning I am in danger of vomiting. I call for Ben to quickly get me a Kytril, my most trusted anti-nausea pill. I take it and for the next few minutes struggle to keep it down. At $45 per pill, I'll be damned if I'm going to lose it! Whether it is psychological or chemical, I manage to get past the crisis.

Christy and Nils leave around 4 pm. They have to get home to Massachusetts and the grand-cats. She has a baby shower to go to on Sunday, so they can't stay another night. It has been fun having them here to share our Thanksgiving. She will not be able to come back until Christmas, with business taking her away two of the weekends in between, and their anniversary falling on another. I hate to see her go as she has been a tremendous help and comfort.

Sunday, Nov. 28, 1999: Ben makes calls to line up helpers to spend days with me for the next week or so. I find that I must spend more time flat on my back and the pain is continuing to get worse. By evening, Ben puts in a call to Dr. Tom, only to find that a doctor that we don't know is covering. I decide to tough it out until morning. Cuddles seems to know something is wrong and gets into a position on my pillow with his face against mine and purrs ever so softly.

Monday, Nov. 29, 1999: After a very bad night, I realize that I must go to the hospital. I cannot move from lying flat without excruciating back pain, even to take the pills I need, much less to use the bathroom. I also know that the only way I will be able to get there is by ambulance. We wait until about 7:30 and Ben calls Dr. Tom's office. Still the unknown doctor on call. The service insists they cannot page Dr. Tom and his office doesn't open until 9:00.

Mary Ann Canfield arrives at 8:00, thinking she will be spending the day with me. We bring her up to speed on what's going on while we watch the clock. Once again Cuddles plants himself on my pillow with his cheek against mine.

9:00 finally comes and Ben calls again. Dr. Tom will call the hospital to admit me immediately. Ben then calls the Wiscasset ambulance and explains the circumstances. They arrive in under ten minutes, assess the situation and move me onto a back board. Cuddles is still trying to stay right with me and tries to get onto the back board. Mary Ann hustles him away as the two EMTs, Roland and Brant, attempt to get me through the bedroom door. They can't make the turn into the narrow hall, so they strap me more securely to the board so they can stand it up nearly vertical, and are then able to make the turn. Despite my fears, they manage all this without hurting me at all.

The trip to the hospital goes very smoothly. The driver obviously knows all the bumps in the road and either avoids them or slows to an appropriate crawl. I am somewhat disoriented, not knowing where we are at any given point since I can only see sky and treetops. When we arrive at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, someone is actually waiting inside the emergency entrance with all the necessary paperwork, wrist ID band and card, and directs us down the hall to x-ray where they are also waiting for me. Roland and Brant help slide me onto the x-ray table, still miraculously without pain, and say good bye. We thank them profusely for a superb job!

Six very uncomfortable x-rays later, and I am in my room. Probably 20 minutes has elapsed since we arrived! Soon I am hooked up to an IV to administer morphine. By mid afternoon I am feeling much better, if a bit groggy. I am actually able to sit up and get to the bathroom. It is a pleasure to have Eve as my nurse. She is about our daughter's age, and lived around the corner from us in Bath 20 years ago. Small world.

Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999: I am feeling even better today, and have actually been walking up and down the hall, of course with Ben dragging along my IV pole with morphine pump. As my pain lessens, Dr. Tom gradually reduces the amount of morphine I am receiving. I am hoping that this bodes well for a short stay. However, I am starting to notice intestinal problems again, and they put me on a series of stool softeners and laxatives.

Thursday, Dec. 2, 1999: Yesterday I felt worse and worse and began having a substantial reaction to the laxatives and eventually vomited.

I thought that had been the worst and that I could only get better, but I was wrong! I wake up this morning with severe muscle spasms down both sides of my back. I am in such pain that I cannot move. Turning side to side or lifting myself up are out of the question. Dr. Tom has raised the morphine level again.

Several new measures have been discussed this week to permanently control the pain. The first is a shot of Strontium 90, a radioactive substance that has been given to prostate cancer patients to manage metastatic bone disease. There is a slim chance that this could also work on my metastatic breast cancer in the bones as the tumors are similar in composition. Dr. Tom has ordered the Strontium from the Maine Medical radiation facility. The drug should arrive here for administration today.

Another pain measure being discussed is a TENZCARE unit, a control box the size of a pager with a series of electrodes that would be attached to nerve areas in my lower back. It sends electrical impulses to the nerves and can eliminate or reduce nerve pain. Yet another possibility is a nerve block to the area if the source of the pain can be sufficiently isolated. The drug Decadron is another option, which is administered directly into my morphine IV.

The Strontium 90 arrives this afternoon. However, because of some kind of incident in the lab, a new vial must be ordered and will not be available until next week. They assure me that there was no melt down and that my former colleagues on the Maine Yankee decommissioning panel will not be called in to investigate my role in the nuclear incident! As an alternative, Dr. Tom orders a TENZ unit and 2 mg of Decadron to be added to the morphine IV tomorrow. I know I will be facing another day of unmitigated pain.

On a more positive note, I heard two therapy dogs arrive on my floor. I asked the nurse about them and they said they were there to visit the Bodwell skilled care unit. I asked if cats are ever used for therapy. They seemed to think that this is possible, and if Cuddles arrived in his carrier with a leash, he could visit me in my room tomorrow!

Friday, Dec. 3, 1999: Dr. Tom arrives in the early morning to start my Decadron. Later on the rehabilitation therapist arrives with the TENZ unit and attaches the electrodes to my lower back. She says it may feel like a "pins & needles" or a stinging sensation. Instead, it feels quite comfortable, almost like little massaging fingers. It is not painful at all. She also shows me how to adjust the control box to regulate the intensity of the stimulation. I find that her initial settings are fine, and in a couple of hours I am feeling better.

To provide further relief, Cuddles, the therapy cat, arrives for a one hour visit in the afternoon. He seems more concerned with fully exploring and sniffing my room and checking the window views before visiting me on my bed. Cuddles has been a total uplift for my spirits, and by late evening the TENZ unit seems to be providing me great relief.

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