A year ago today I knew we were in trouble when we got to the ER and they were waiting for us. I knew we were in trouble when we arrived in a private car, but they waved us past the waiting room. I knew we were in trouble, when I didn’t have to check us in.
I’ve written about pretty much every part of the experience of Lisa’s illness… except that day. But as this anniversary neared, I found myself flashing on to it. So, here goes…
One year ago today I was sitting in a meeting at Disney Television Animation. I was with Michelle and Kay. And Jay. I didn’t really know him at the time. So when my phone started buzzing. And buzzing. And buzzing, I was distracted by it. It was an important meeting. You know the things you think are important, until they’re not. We were talking about how to update the Doc McStuffins theme song. So, I did something I rarely do. I turned my phone off.
The meeting over, I took my phone out of my bag and turned it on. PLINK – PLINK – PLINK. The screen filled with texts. All from Lisa. I was about to look at them when Chris Hutchinson came around the corner. We started to chat, and as we did I glanced down and caught a few words: ‘Emergency’ ‘911’ ‘CALL ME RIGHT NOW’.
I called. Lisa was in a panic. I had to come home. Brian told her to get to the nearest ER. Now. I remember her telling me numbers. I didn’t have a faux medical degree yet, so I didn’t know what they meant. But what stuck out was 10,000 platelets. Normally 150,000 – 400,000. She was in danger of bleeding out.
Adrenaline is a hella strong drug. A ran for my car. I’m in deep Burbank. She’s in Venice. I started making phone calls. First Sara. Can she take Theo? Yes, but I have to call school. Called school – my voice must have made it clear that I was not kidding around. No hoops. They would release Theo to Sara without paperwork. Called Sascha. He knew the world of blood disorders. Trying to figure out what hospital to go to. Called Norma to realize she was in NYC. And I heard something in her voice that told me I was right. This was bad.
Somewhere in there I also texted Kerri to ask her to find out which hospitals are covered by our insurance. I don’t remember that text, but recently texted her and saw the whole exchange. Somewhere in my panic-brain my producer-brain was also working.
Picked up Lisa. For the first time I let myself see the color of her face. We’ve become obsessed with pictures of the weeks leading up to that day. What could we see. What should we have seen. We are all eagle-eyed for the first bruises. There! See there, on your arm? What did we think that bruise was from?
Now I look back at pictures from the few weeks before, and I see that she looks like a ghost. A vampire. Her face isn’t right. But I don’t see it in the hustle and bustle of real time.
I see it when I walk into the house. She’s packed a small bag. We both seem to know this is going to be bigger than all that. And we drive to St. Johns.
On the way in – going to park – I look at the car ahead of us and there’s… Audry? Heading in to be with her mother. But she later gives me her clothes to sleep in that night. And she feeds Lisa. And makes us laugh. Such a gift that bump in.
Lisa has called Sherrie Ross. The numbers made her put down her sandwich and walk to a nearby office to ask for a favor from a hematologist friend. He was waiting for us. The ER was waiting for us.
I was an EMT in high school. I know what it means when they’re waiting for you.
Here’s what happened in the first hour:
They took blood to double check the results.
They ask Lisa if she’s eaten. She has. They do not have time to wait. She needs a bone marrow biopsy – drilling into her bone to take out a core sample – and because she’s eaten they can’t give her anesthesia. She looks at them and says, ‘I can take it’. She could. She does.
A full team is down in her room and drilling within 45 minutes. I know how long you usually wait for a specialization team to come perform a procedure.
They had told us within an hour that she most likely has cancer. Leukemia. I remember that I couldn’t spell leukemia. I can’t spell. And I was texting with shaky hands. And I kept spelling it so badly that it wouldn’t autocorrect correctly. One friend responded, “Did you mean to write pneumonia?” She was trying to use the misspelling to believe it wasn’t what I was saying it was.
I remember emailing her sisters and saying one of them needed to start a text chain with all of us on it. And I remember telling them it was most likely leukemia. But I spelled it wrong.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they didn’t really say all that. So clearly. So quickly.
But within that hour I’d also been handed a notebook. A notebook on managing your cancer. It said it right on the cover. And it was spelled right. C A N C E R.
I don’t know where that booklet ended up. We never used it.
And within that hour a member of the clergy had come to the room.
And the billing person. They came to me. And they told me they were praying for us.
An orderly told me they were praying for Lisa.
And within that first hour Lisa was so strong. And clear: “I want to live.” Which she did.
Most of you know the rest of the story. That I didn’t really have to learn how to spell leukemia. But did have to learn what Aplastic Anemia was. And while it technically isn’t cancer, Lisa sees an oncologist, and is treated in the cancer center. Not being cancer is a technicality. We share our doctor with the leukemia and lymphoma patients.
A year later, Lisa is just returning from a week away at a writing retreat. Her first truly solo outing.
A year later, we all want to say, “Phew glad that year is over!” But this isn’t over. This journey is ongoing. Out of crisis mode, we become another family dealing with a chronic illness. Lisa is still shaking her head and trying to accept that this is her. We still go to the cancer center at least once a month and wonder what the outcome will be. Sometimes it’s better than others, but it’s never normal.
But we do have to wait to see the doctor. And that is comforting. Billing doesn’t come to us. Time moves slowly. And, while that can be inconvenient as we get back to life, I’m secretly thrilled every time we have to go up and ask how long this is going to be. Because when they forget you’re there, it’s a good day.