Lincoln County News
January 13, 2000

"LifeLines" My journal about living with cancer

by Sandy Labaree

This journal submission describes my eight day stay at MidCoast Hospital as my doctors deal with a perforated bowel and other problems. I rally back to be sent home on watch and my spirits and energy are boosted tremendously by a visit from sister Peg and her husband Bill.

December 29, 1999: Well, here I am back in MidCoast Hospital Brunswick. Many of the nurses recognize me from my previous stay a few weeks ago and are dropping in to say hello. It is really comforting to know that the nurses keep track of former patients and are sincerely interested in their progress.

My medical situation is in the hands of Dr. Tom and Peter Areson, my surgeon. My initial x-rays indicated a large pocket of air behind my diaphragm which means that a hole or perforation has developed in the digestive or intestinal tract, allowing intestinal gas and potential contents of the intestine to leak into the area behind the diaphragm. To study the area in detail, today I am scheduled for more lung x-rays and a CAT scan of my abdomen.

Linda, my friend the CAT lady, is in charge of my abdominal scan today. Dr. Tom and the radiologist can monitor the scan in progress from an adjacent room. The scan is rather inconclusive as it does not reveal where the hole or perforation is located. The perforation could be anywhere from the upper gastrointestinal tract all the way down to my colon. However, the consensus is that the hole may very likely be in the sigmoid area of my colon where I was bombarded most with all the radiation. Of significant concern, the abdominal x-ray shows that my large intestine is fully impacted. This was rather unexpected as I had been having what was assumed to be regular bowel function. It is decided to wait on treating this condition until Peter and Tom feel that clearing it out will not put unnecessary pressure or stress on the lower colon.

We basically have two courses of treatment. The first is a very conservative approach to giving me a strong regimen of IV antibiotics targeted to abdominal infections. Peter jokes that this is the approach used in England where the cost of this type of care is less than surgery. The second and more aggressive approach is to do an exploratory surgery to find the perforation, examine the involved areas of the abdomen and to close the perforation with a temporary colostomy, which would essentially seal the ends of the hole and allow them to heal.

I can see that both Tom and Peter are torn on what to choose. Peter seems more willing to wait this out with IV's and see how I do. Meanwhile, Tom, the oncologist is more concerned with my blood counts which have been bouncing around and my overall compromised health situation. My red cell count has been dropping slightly even though I had a blood transfusion a few days ago. Tom attributes this to my clinical trial treatment of the Strontium 89 which has apparently suppressed my bone marrow. Hopefully, this will eventually bounce back as the Strontium has zeroed in on my bone pain and virtually eliminated it.

My white cell count which normally runs on the low side has also been fluctuating which is always a concern infection wise. However, I am on so many antibiotics, I feel well protected. The other count that Tom is monitoring is a varying calcium level which can be managed with supplemental IV's.

December 30, 1999: Today, is Ben's and my wedding anniversary. Before going into the hospital, Lynda, one of my friends helped me plan a private surprise anniversary dinner. Lynda made up a lovely gold and silver centerpiece for my table using some of my Christmas balls. I made two place mats using cardboard covered with a shiny silver wrapping paper. Then, we took two champagne glasses and tied silver ribbon around the stems. I called Mary Ann Canfield and told her I wanted to have her put together a special take out meal of surf and turf: Two 7 oz. sirloin strip steaks with fried shrimp. Potato, salad and a special dessert were to complete the special dinner. I was going to have Mary Ann drop it off at 6 pm. and surprise Ben.

Needless to say, plans for this were abruptly canceled and I was very pleased with myself for taking this all in stride with no tears or regrets as I lay in my hospital bed. In the past, due to work or other situations, Ben and I have postponed celebrating on the exact anniversary day and we have done a special celebration or weekend getaway which was lots more fun.

Today, Ben came in with an anniversary balloon and lovely cards which we opened together. I also told him about the surprise dinner and he brought in the two champagne glasses I had decorated. Being on IV's and not being able to have other liquids or solids, we toasted with the two empty glasses, but it was the sheer thought that counted. We were together and celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary.

December 31, 1999: My daughter, Christy and husband Nils have come up to visit for the weekend. They have rearranged their plans to be with me over New Year's and I feel guilty for taking them away from so many of their own activities. Christy is always so creative and thoughtful. As soon as she arrives in my room, she immediately starts putting up Happy New Year banners, colorful shiny strands of glitter and crepe paper. The nurses are quite in awe of the festive decorating job. Christy has brought party horns which I will refrain from blowing at midnight, lest I wake the entire medical surgical floor. Included in the decorations are several tiny plastic champagne bottles filled with a soap bubble mixture. When you pull off the tops, there are metal wands and I amuse myself with filling the room with floating bubbles of all shapes and sizes. Anyway, for me it was an unusual start to the Millennium. I awoke about ten minutes after midnight to turn on the TV and make sure the New Year arrived and my bubbles were Y2K compliant.

January 1, 2000: Today, I had another x-ray of my lungs to check the air behind the diaphragm. The pocket of air is shrinking, a good sign. My Dr's and radiologist are hopeful that the rest of the air may eventually be absorbed by my body. Meanwhile, I am continuing on my IV's. Peter now feels it's time to tackle cleaning the impaction in the upper intestine. This will not be very pleasant as it involves drinking one liter of a disgusting liquid called Mannitol. I try to pace myself and drink it over a 10 minute period. When I am finished, I feel greatly relieved until I suddenly feel the urge to throw up. I grab my wash basin and take deep breaths. Meanwhile, I am urging myself to hang in there and not vomit. I also pretend that I have just taken one of my $45 Kytril pills which I am not about to see go down the toilet. Through sheer will power, the urge to vomit passes in about half an hour. I tell Peter that I hope I never see that Mannitol again. He says that I may need it as a preventive measure in the future, but he'll cut the dose in half.

January 3, 2000: The Mannitol has done its job and my x-rays reveal that the impaction has fully cleared. Unfortunately, my lung x-rays are showing that the air is developing again behind the diaphragm. Peter and Tom are now at a crossroads of what to do. Should they keep me in the hospital on a "watch" or let me go home to get some family TLC and do the "watch" from home.

I am very apprehensive as to what to decide. I am weak, but feel that I can psyche myself up to this challenge to go home. I ask Peter and Tom many questions as to what is the safest and most prudent course of action. Peter assures me I am only 25 minutes away by ambulance and that any emergency could be dealt with. I sense that Tom is more worried due to my bouncing blood counts. Finally, the decision is made. Tom is ordering a one unit blood transfusion for me Wednesday morning. If all goes well, I can then go home on watch.

January 5, 2000: My blood transfusion goes well despite having to be moved to several rooms as the hospital is overflowing with admissions and every bed is needed. As I lie in bed during the transfusion, I try to imagine who the person is who so kindly gave me their gift of blood. I wonder if this may be a neighbor or friend. Are they young or old? Where do they live and what do they do, I ponder. In any case, they have given unselfishly of a gift that can save a life.

Tom reviews my discharge papers and Ben and I finally head out of the hospital around 3 pm. It is a tremendous feeling of relief to be out in the sunshine and headed home in my car. Carolyn comes by to help and stay with me while Ben runs out to fill my new prescriptions. I am very weak and tired, but I am now focused on my sister Peg and her husband Bill who are driving up from NJ tomorrow to spend the next few days with us. This is the therapy and TLC I need.

January 6, 2000: Peg and Bill arrive around 1:30 pm. today and I am elated to see them. Though I am on my all liquid diet, I assure Peg that I will personally sniff all the wonderful meals and goodies we plan for the weekend. It may sound odd, but just smelling the food is almost as good as eating it. I think smell has much to do with how we perceive taste. Peg has brought homemade spaghetti sauce made from tomatoes from her garden. It passes my sniff test and so does the great blend of cheeses she has brought for topping the sauce. I sip my chicken bouillon and eat my raspberry ice and watch contentedly as everyone demolishes their spaghetti.

January 7, 2000: Today, my CHANS visiting nurse, Debbie, stopped by to check up on me. She took two blood samples from my portacath to take back to Tom's office to check my counts. She seemed pleased with how well I was doing. Not long after she left, I noticed a clicking noise coming from the portacath area. I called her and reported it. She came back to check and called Tom. After a quick consult with Peter, it was determined the noise was coming from inside the port device. It was not urgent as the device will not be used again until late next week and they will check and fix it as needed.

Ben and Bill keep busy today and over the weekend by shopping, running errands, visiting the hardware store and doing guys things. Peg and I have our usual girl time and I feel my energy returning faster than expected. I am still taking it very easy and sticking to my diet. Both Tom and Peter check in regularly and are pleased with my progress.

We have planned two in-house restaurant reviews this weekend. Friday is Canfield's giant pig-out takeout. Peg has been treated to Canfield's during previous trips to Maine. However, Bill has not been along and is a far more discriminating diner. He orders the haddock in crumbs and not a morsel was left behind on his plate. Ben has meatloaf and Peg had the open faced hot turkey sandwich. Of course, everyone had dessert. I was busy sniffing the entire variety of meals which passed my inspection.

Not to be outdone, Paul and Sue joined us Saturday for a Beale Street Barbecue take out session which was almost decadent by the sheer quantities of food. All in all it was a fabulous weekend. It was a tremendous boost both physically and emotionally and I knew I had made the right choice in coming home on this recovery "watch".

I hated to see Peg and Bill drive away early Sunday morning, but they promised to schedule a visit again this winter. It never ceases to amaze me how the love and support of my family and friends play such a strong role in my healing.

- - -

(Click here to go directly to the next column)