When Cancer Makes a Hospital a Home

My wife and I are always amazed at the fond memories and warm feelings that rise up when we return to Nashville.

My wife and I are always amazed at the fond memories and warm feelings that rise up when we return to Nashville. To others, Nashville is Music City, the home of country music and a launching pad for rising stars. For us, it is the home of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

You would think that leukemia would have marked our Nashville memories with pain and perhaps even terror. We could flash back to my heart attack, to blood pooling in the crook of my elbow and running down onto a gurney as the emergency room nurse ran out of the room for help, or me passed out on the floor in front of a door the nurses could not open because I was laying against it.

But we don't.

As we crawl our way down 21st street, through the crowd of cars and past the hurrying and scurrying students, nurses, and technicians making their way to and from classes or labs or hospital wards, we feel the warmth in our chest, smiles cross our faces, and we talk about hot soup at Panera or Au Bon Pain, long conversations with my deep-south chemo buddy Jerry and his wife, and doctors with names like Watson and Halliday. We talk about the tuna sandwiches I became obsessed with after my marrow transplant, and we laugh about the things we experienced on 11 North.

The blood cancer ward has moved from 11 North to the 10th floor of the Critical Care Tower now. The rooms are bigger, and the hall is brighter. We only know a few of the nurses. Our teenage children who crammed into the two-bedroom apartment that charities provided have grown up and moved on to new homes. Only our baby girl is with us still, a teenager herself now. I don't spend weeks at a time in the cancer center anymore, just an hour or two, and I only see my doctors every six months.

Oddly, I miss them.

We were on vacation for three weeks in June, and when we got back, I forgot about my six-month checkup with Dr. Reddy. I was disappointed, but I can go next week instead. She was the cheery doctor, always smiling. Our favorite memory of her was when she came in for her rounds one morning to find me writing on the computer. I was a little slow in closing my laptop, so in a pleasant, good-morning tone, she asked, "Do you have time for me this morning?"

Leukemia was a test for me. I am part of the leadership of my church. I teach people to believe and follow the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. One of those teachings is that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called by him. Another is that we should give thanks in every situation. I always wondered, if things got really bad, if I would be able to live out my own words. Leukemia gave me my opportunity to know. Not only is leukemia really bad, but I was hit with one of the most aggressive forms.

We went into treatment determined to face it with thanksgiving, faith and joy. I had no idea how difficult that might be, but I was pretty sure it would take a lot of effort.

It didn't.

I acknowledge the grace of God in the joy I had facing leukemia, of course, but what was really a surprise were the people. Nurses, patients, doctors, even janitors. They say people are at their best in group crisis, taking care of one another and banding together around the mission to set things right. That is certainly true in the leukemia ward.

When we return to Nashville, we don't remember pain. We remember people. We remember Doc Halliday in his cowboy boots. We remember Dr. Watson telling us that people don't poke at him with, "Elementary, my dear Watson." Instead, they typically get their doctors mixed up and quip, "Dr. Watson, I presume."

So I'm sad I forgot my appointment. I can't wait to go back next week and see the places where we hung out between the chemo treatments, while I was well. Above all, I look forward to seeing those wonderful, smiling people who shared the journey with us while I wasn't well.