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 enter the unit like almost all of us do, I’m wheeled in on a gurney following major abdominal surgery that has just been performed by one of western Canada’s top pelvic cancer surgeons. It’s the evening of December 13, 2011, and I can vaguely remember being transferred to a bed in a darkened room, beside me is one other patient. Outside the sun has already disappeared, and as I drift in and out of consciousness I visualize the rush hour traffic—thousands of people racing home for dinner, perhaps some rushing to the nearest mall for yet another round of Christmas shopping.
The first night I struggle with some post-operative vertigo and I can hardly focus each time I open my eyes. The room gradually stops spinning as the dawn approaches, meanwhile morphine dulls my pain and I reach down once or twice to feel a large compression bandage covering my abdomen. At first, I mistake the female resident who comes to examine me on rounds in the morning for one of the nurses. I don’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 becomes engrained in me is having my blood drawn, the hospital lab technicians regularly make their rounds of the unit 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 watch as the occasional short-term stay patient is relegated to the hallway due to the unavailability of rooms. It’s a reminder to me how drastically the situation for patients and their families has changed in recent years. 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.
In hindsight, I admire the nurses who work on Unit 42— I remain grateful for the ones who went out of their way to make me more comfortable, especially 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 unmistakably a vintage 1960s building.
I can still visualize myself under their care and the thoughts racing through my mind. It’s only the second time in my life that I’ve been hospitalized, and the previous time it wasn’t on a large oncology unit. This time my situation seems more unbearable to me, I feel 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’ve never directly experienced such an atmosphere—one filled with hope, fear, anguish and despair. There are times during my stay when I can almost see them oozing out of the drab, greyish walls that surround me.
LIke many of the other patients my surgery has been fairly extensive, it has ultimately involved a small bowel resection as well as the removal of my appendix and omentum. Time creeps slowly as my condition gradually improves. Due to some unexpected complications, it takes until December 24 for the oncologists to finally agree that I am well enough to be discharged. During the course of my stay I’ve endured blood transfusions, numerous tests and scans and too many pain and nausea medications for me to keep track of. I am so incredibly anxious to go home that I’m already changing into my clothes when my mom and brother appear in the door of my room. As I leave the building through the busy lobby on Christmas Eve, I sense that psychologically I will never actually leave behind the experience of being a patient on Unit 42. I realize that it will influence the remainder of my life.