March 26, 2018
Michael’s second transplant has started. There are six bags of stem cells today, and six again tomorrow. But today I am realizing how dangerous this really is. He’s been pre-medicated with Benadryl because of the strong allergic reactions that bodies have to the medium in which the stem cells are preserved.
“Now, you know you need to tell me if you have any heart pain or chest tightness,” the nurse says again. Michael nods but now both the nurse and I are on high alert, watching carefully. Meanwhile Michael has moved into closed-eyed silence and only monosyllabic responses. I should be used to this by now, but I’m not. When he is sick I always feel like I’m being shut out. But I know that he’s just gone deeply inside himself to find the strength needed to get through this. I also know he will become more and more silent as he gets sicker and sicker over the next long days.
Then yesterday we were told that there is flu on this ward. Apparently, there have been deaths from the flu in this hospital but we don’t know if those happened on this ward or not. Regardless, I’m even more cautious now though there’s not much to do but wash my hands a dozen times a day. Mostly, I sit and watch, and today I bring my laptop.
It’s boring really. Tremendously boring and also horrifying. Two days ago he was given a poison that will almost kill him in the next two weeks, and now he’s being given the stem cells that might prolong his life. But even the stem cells have risks and the progress of their input is watched closely, the nurse standing by for the next two hours, carefully monitoring every sign of life.
Michael’s throat has started itching and though that doesn’t sound like much, the nurse immediately backs off on the rate of the stem cell drip. It’s a sign of an allergic response and they’re not taking any chances.
This is good! During the last transplant 19 months ago, I am at my youngest son’s wedding. It is a tremendously hard decision to make but the nurses assure me that Michael is in good hands and I choose to see my son marry his beautiful wife. I just can’t miss this milestone event and Michael strongly encourages me to go. He knows exactly how important it is to me to be there.
In the middle of the rehearsal dinner I get a text from Michael saying that they just placed him on oxygen. I am terrified.
I go outside and stand on a cliff above the California ocean and cry unrestrainedly. “I should be there, I should be there,” is the refrain in my mind. But I’m not. I’m 2000 miles away and I don’t know what’s going on. I get another text that he’s gotten so much fluid with the transplant that it’s become hard for him to breathe. I go back into the dinner and my other son’s wife explains it to me. She’s a nurse and she can see how upset I am. “It’s not a big deal,” she says, “people go on oxygen all the time. The fluid pressed against his lungs and made it hard for him to breathe. They’re doing the right thing. He’ll be ok.”
I am much calmer but I’m also anxious to be back home, to see my husband with my own eyes, to know he is truly ok. I’m only gone for 3 days but it feels like a lifetime. What a comedy of timing! My son’s wedding, my husband’s transplant. Could it get much more dramatic? And then I realize that of course it could. Michael could die from this.
Now as the stem cells continue to drip into his arm, I tell the nurse about his previous transplant reaction, about the use of fluid that compromised his oxygen intake. The nurse pays careful attention to what I’m saying, checks his oxygen saturation, and it seems this will not happen again.
After a few hours, it’s done. There haven’t been any really bad reactions and now Michael is sleeping. The stem cells are in and making their way to the bone marrow, to the possibility of building new life within his sick one.
But I also know what’s coming. In about a week, Michael will literally be standing at death’s door once again. His white blood cell count will go to zero. And then, if things go well, the stem cells become engrafted and take over for the stem cells that are no longer healthy. Once this happens he gradually comes back from his visit to the underworld, hopefully coming back stronger than the last time.
Transplant day is counted as day zero here on the ward. It is celebrated as a birthday and helium balloons are given out in an effort to cheer up a procedure that is anything but cheery. Really, it’s not a birth day, but it is the possibility for a rebirth. And no matter which way it goes, it’s the end of the line for us. It marks a rebirth into a new life, or into the next life. And either way, both of us are looking forward to going home.