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 just 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 people racing home for dinner, perhaps some rushing to the nearest mall for yet another round of Christmas shopping.
The first night I struggled with some post-operative vertigo and I could hardly focus each time I opened my eyes. 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 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 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 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. 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.
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 a large oncology unit. This time my situation seemed more unbearable to me, 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 such an atmosphere—one filled with hope, fear, anguish and despair. There were times during my stay when I could almost see it oozing out of the drab, greyish walls that surrounded me.
LIke many of the other patients my surgery had been fairly extensive, it had ultimately involved a small bowel resection as well as the removal of my appendix and omentum. Time crept slowly as my condition gradually improved. Due to some minor complications, it took until December 24 for the oncologists to finally agree that I was well enough to be discharged. During the course of my stay I had endured blood transfusions, numerous tests and scans and too many IV medications for me to keep track of. I was so incredibly anxious to go home that I was already changing into my clothes when my mom and brother appeared in the door of my room. As I left the building through the busy lobby that Christmas Eve, I realized that psychologically I would never actually leave behind the experience of being a patient on Unit 42. I knew it would influence the remainder of my life.