There is a checkpoint as you enter the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where I am being treated for cancer of the prostate and lymph nodes. With all but two sets of doors to the building locked shut, patients are corralled into an area roped off from the rest of the first-floor lobby. You are required to show your orange Hopkins patient identification card and proof that you have an appointment.
Questions are asked. Questions that have become the norm in the new normal. “Have you had a cough?” “Have you visited New York or New Jersey in the last 14 days?”
Your temperature is taken. You are given a checkpoint security bracelet which you wrap around your wrist. You are instructed to not deviate from the floor-taped path assigned to your appointment location. You are urged not to share an elevator. That last instruction is really not necessary. No one wants to share a hospital elevator in the age of coronavirus.
The anxiety of the nurses manning these checkpoints is often palpable. Decked out with face mask, full face shield and full protective gown, a nurse checking me in was so overwrought, she began to cry as she asked, “Are you having any trouble breathing?”
In the parking garage for the Kimmel Center, you notice many cars with their drivers still inside. Just sitting there, checking their phones, probably filling out crosswords and solving Sudoku puzzles.
At first glance, this seems somewhat peculiar. Then, you realize these are the loved ones of those receiving radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Visitors are not allowed in the hospital in the age of coronavirus.
So, patients sit by themselves in the waiting room. They fidget in light blue leather chairs measured six feet apart. Frightened eyes peering out over face masks, they have the look of lost souls. I know this look. I saw it on my father during one of his last hospital stays years ago.
From his bed, he gazed up at me and begged, “Please take me home.” I could not.
But at least I was there with him. The patients in the waiting room of the Kimmel Center are isolated, some feeling abandoned. It’s understandable. In many cases, some cancer treatments are now considered as elective.
My urologist gave me my first round of androgen deprivation injections and my oncologist said he would administer the second round. But the state’s stay-at-home order left that in limbo, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get my shot.
“You really should not be at a hospital right now,” my urologist told me.
“Do you think my cancer knows that?” I replied.
This is your choice in the age of coronavirus. Risk exposure or don’t treat the cancer.
It was a nurse named Ann who came to my aid and volunteered to administer my shot. She has a young child at home, a girl. Ann’s career now comes with a new peril. The risks she brings home from her work weigh heavily on her. You can see this in her face. She is tired. Her voice is quiet. Nurse Ann admits that a visit to her hairstylist would be nice. When I thanked her for coming to my aid, she dutifully replied that she was only doing her job.
Nearly all the nurses and technicians I’ve met have been more than patient and kind. For me, the catheter changes, M.R.I.s, CT scans and fiber optic cameras shoved in places the human body did not intend have been a series of compounded indignities and humiliations. Nurses and technicians take such things in stride. They offer support and comfort.
Anyone who has had an M.R.I. scan knows they make significant noise. They bang. They buzz. They clang. You are given ear plugs. You are given headphones. You are offered a choice of music. The intention being that these will drown out the clatter. They don’t.
As a renowned music snob, I asked the nurse at my most recent scan, for something other than smooth jazz. “What would you like to hear?” she asked. “Charles Mingus.” Five minutes later I was listening to Mingus’ elegy to the beloved saxophonist Lester Young, “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” a sentimental favorite. It was a small thing. Small things mean a great deal these days.
More than your doctors, nurses and technicians have your health, your life, in their hands. They are decent, hard-working, well-meaning and caring hands.
This should not be a revelation. In the age of coronavirus, one hears heroic stories every day. It hit home, hard, for me, when I had to go to the hospital. Two hours at there is nerve wracking. I leave each visit emotionally exhausted.
Nurses’ shifts are 12 hours, day after day. It is amazing what you learn to live with. Though I imagine we all have a breaking point.
In a few days I start radiation therapy. There will be permanent tattoos on my stomach and legs marking where the beams are to be targeted. The X-rays (hopefully) kill the cancer. They will also compromise my immune system. A cold will now be much easier to catch. A cold that can quickly escalate to pneumonia. Covid-19? Well …
Radiation five days a week for eight weeks. Forty trips to the hospital in the age of coronavirus.
As I said, it is amazing what you learn to live with.
Richard Goggin is a television creative director.
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