Exactly one year ago today my back pain had debilitated my health to the point where I was ready to turn myself in to the ministrations of St Luke's Emergency Room, in search of some relief. From that pivotal moment onward, I've had a incredible year—one worthy of some reflection…
Back on Jan 31 a year ago, it only took the St Luke's folks a matter of hours (and several tests) to discover that I was one sick puppy. The main problem being that I had an aggressive case of multiple myeloma—bone marrow cancer. This put terrific strain on my kidneys, which were limping along at 20% capacity, and I had been experiencing serious calcium leaching (common in myeloma patients) that resulted in three collapsed vertebrae (no wonder it was painful lifting things).
It took my St Luke's oncologist (Homam Alkaied) only a short time to map out a course of recovery—not that doing it was easy, just that the pathway was well described. The long-term plan was to get my cancer under control, but first they had to deal with my severe pain, imminent renal failure, and brittle bones. (Long-term doesn't count for much if you don't survive the short-term.)
I was hospitalized for 19 days, followed by 21 days in a rehabilitation facility. We were well into March Madness by the time I got back to Susan's in a wheelchair and 50 pound lighter. From there, gradually I did get better. By April I walked out of the wheelchair. My weight stabilized and a mixture of chemotherapy protocols (delivered via blood infusions) was effective in bringing my cancer into containment. I was able to manage my back pain through the judicious use of Oxycontin, and my body adapted to all the strange new chemicals flowing through my veins.
By July I was ready for an autologous stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic. That meant a five-week stay in Rochester MN, where I set a personal best for vials filled during a blood draw (19) and discovered I have an allergic reaction to three drugs—scopolamine, benadryl, and compazine—all of which resulted in temporary delirium and were highly entertaining. Eventually, my stamina lengthened, my nausea abated, and my appetite got relocated. On Aug 19 I was able to go home.
After another month of R&R in Duluth, I felt strong enough to travel to and teach. Despite ongoing limits on my constitution (I no longer agree to six-week marathon road trips), the work has gone well enough that I'm now doing 1-2 jobs/month—a rate that feels sustainable even if I never get better than I am today.
Yet the sun shines today.
A year ago, Susan did everything—because I was unable to do anything. From a cold start last March (after graduating from the rehab center) I have slowly been getting my oar back in the water:
o We have established a weekday morning routine that approximates domestic harmony: I make breakfast and coffee while Susan showers and walks the dog. She gets first crack at the Sudoku; I get first dibs on the NY Times crossword after she departs for work.
o We do dinner parties again. While my energy may be questionable after dessert, I can be counted on to prepare at last half the dishes.
o Though I may never shovel snow again, and I'm no account when it comes to moving boxes, running a household offers myriad ways to contribute that don't require a strong back. Though I'm only the back-up dog walker, I'm a serious help with dishes, and can sort trash from recyclables with the best of them.
o Though Susan was handling my meds in March, now I do all my own dosing and calling in refills. While Susan was invariably chauffeuring me to and from doctor and outpatient appointments 10 months ago, some days now I drive myself.
o Susan was used to operating her household budget wholly on her own before I romanced my way into her life in 2015. Though my moving in didn't change the budget very much (whew), we were lucky that my health crisis didn't either—thank you Medicare and supplemental insurance. Still, the future looked pretty shaky last March. I was no longer working and it looked like my medical bills were going to "above average" for the foreseeable future.
With my cancer in remission, I'm again able to earn decent income (even doing work I love!). Our biggest challenge is not whether Laird will live to see another birthday, but when will we have sufficient economic flow that Susan can retire from her part time job as parish secretary at St Paul's Episcopal Church, so that we can spend more time traveling (and doing crosswords).
All day long, as I've reflected on the preceding 12 months, I've been unable to escape the overwhelming sensation that I've been one lucky dude.