Women in southern Alberta who are diagnosed with gynecologic cancer become patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and are treated by the gynecologic oncologists there. However, when surgery is required we become patients on Unit 42 B, located in the adjacent Foothills Hospital building. I first entered the unit like almost all of us do, I was wheeled in on a gurney following major abdominal surgery that had been performed by one of western Canada’s top pelvic cancer surgeons. It was the evening of December 13, 2011, and I can vaguely remember being transferred to a bed in a darkened room, beside me was one other patient. Outside the sun had already disappeared, and as I drifted in and out of consciousness I visualized the rush hour traffic—thousands of cars racing home for dinner, perhaps some rushing to the mall for yet another round of Christmas shopping.
The first night I struggled with some post-operative vertigo that had perhaps been brought on from the anesthetic or from having my head in a particular position too long when I was still unconscious. The room gradually stopped spinning as the dawn approached, meanwhile morphine dulled my pain and I reached down once or twice to feel a large compression bandage covering my abdomen. At first, I mistook the female resident who came to examine me on rounds that morning for one of the nurses. I didn’t yet realize that residents do most of the rounds on the Foothills cancer wards and report back to the oncologists and surgeons. The other morning routine that soon became engrained in me was having my blood drawn, the hospital lab technicians would regularly make their rounds at five or six in the morning.
So, what is the worst thing about being on Unit 42 –aside from being sick or having cancer of course? A number of things: the helplessness; the feeling of anonymity; the rote and the repetition; being talked about and talked to, rather than talked with; the waiting; and the loneliness. I watched as the occasional short-term stay patient was relegated to the hallway due to the unavailability of rooms. It was a reminder to me of how drastically the situation for patients and their families has changed in the past couple of decades. Once hospitals were where you stayed when you were too sick to return home; now you go home anyway, cobbling together your own nursing services from friends, relatives and drop-in professionals. I admire the nurses who work on Unit 42— I remain grateful for the ones who tried to make me more comfortable or those who took a couple of extra minutes to offer me some needed words of encouragement. In general, the staff does their best to provide first-rate care, even on an overcrowded unit in what is undeniably a vintage 1960s building.
My experience that December was likely influenced by the fact that it was only the second time in my life that I’d been hospitalized, and the previous time it had not been on the oncology unit. To me my situation seemed more unbearable, I felt somehow traumatized. Being on a cancer unit shakes your illusions of immortality. It robs you of the sense of invincibility and innocence that once protected you. I’d never directly experienced an atmosphere filled with such hope, fear, anguish or despair, I could almost see it oozing out of the drab, greyish walls that surrounded me.
It soon became apparent that at age 46 I was one of the youngest patients on the busy unit, and this was sometimes difficult for me to deal with. From what I could ascertain, I was also perhaps the only single woman being cared for. There were instances when I felt almost envious as I watched other women receive visits from their husbands and children. I also remember cringing whenever a staff member would assume I was married, often referring to me as Mrs. Chartier rather than using the appropriate Miss. or Ms. before my name.
My surgery had been fairly extensive, it had ultimately involved a small bowel resection as well as the removal of my appendix and omentum. The days moved slowly by and my condition gradually improved—although, due to some minor complications, it took until December 24 for the oncologists to finally agree that I was well enough to be discharged. When I received the news, I was so incredibly anxious to go home that I began changing into my clothes even before my mom and brother appeared in my room to pick me up. As I left the building through the hospital lobby that Christmas Eve I realized that a part of me would never be able to forget my experience of being a patient on Unit 42.