Twelve years ago today I was lying in Yale-New Haven Hospital. It was the day after a bilateral mastectomy. I was in more pain than I knew how to say.
A resident attributed the pain to muscle spasms in my chest wall, and wrote an order for the nurse to give me a 10 mg tablet of Valium, which she did — on top of the IV morphine I was already getting.
After I swallowed the tablet, I groggily asked my mom to help me to the bathroom so I could wash my face and brush my teeth. I’d finished my physician assistant training the year before, and one thing I hated on my clinical rotations was the morning breath of patients I examined in the pre-dawn hours before morning rounds. I decided I wanted to have better smelling breath than that, so my mom steadied me as I stood at the bathroom sink and brushed my teeth.
I was too out of it to notice the girl in the mirror, with her ashen skin and vacant eyes.
Suddenly, I felt a warm sensation sweep over my whole body. I didn’t know what was happening. I just told my mom, “I need to lay down!” I made it to the edge of the bed, then passed out, face forward, and went unconscious from a dangerous overdose of morphine and Valium.
In the moments I was unconscious, my mom summoned my nurse, who summoned other nurses, who rushed to my bed while others drew up a dose of Narcan to put in my IV to erase all the morphine in my system.
But I was pleasantly oblivious, floating in darkness, with no pain and no fear and no anxiety about a post-mastectomy body.
Then I heard voices in the distance, but it still felt like a dream. I had the feeling that I was in control — that I could wander further into oblivion, or let myself be pulled back into the light. I let go of my grip on darkness and slid toward consciousness. I felt the rough hands of a male nurse who had his hands on my shoulder and was shaking me awake. It doesn’t feel good to be shaken like that on a good day, let alone the day after you’ve had all your breast tissue torn off your chest wall.
I started crying before my eyes were even open. All the morphine was gone, and I could feel every raw nerve ending. They locked me out of my morphine drip for 4 hours to give the Valium time to wear off. I shook in pain. My mom and one of my friends went and found half a dozen warm blankets and covered me with them, but the shivering didn’t stop.
It took a week to get my pain under control. When I was discharged from the hospital, I weighed 99 pounds and there were bruises and needle marks on my arms, and deep circles under my eyes. I looked like a heroin addict coming down from a gnarly high.
For months, I couldn’t stop crying. I was angry. I was afraid. I was grieving the loss of a part of me I hadn’t even used yet. For months, I kicked myself for not wondering farther into that warm darkness I’d fallen into on May 10, 2006.
As I write this, it’s 6:30 a.m. PST on May 10, 2018. At this time 12 years ago, I was unconscious in Yale-New Haven Hospital. This morning, I’m sitting at gate 82 at San Francisco International Airport, on my way to Grand Rapids, MI, to speak at a conference for cancer patients called Bent Not Broken.Myself and two other cancer survivors are keynoting at the conference, telling our stories of fear and loss and despair….and resilience and determination and hope.
The year after my mastectomy, the cancer recurred and I had four more surgeries, chemo, radiation, more chemo, and then I landed in the hospital with sepsis and less than a 50/50 chance of making it out of the hospital alive.
I fought like hell — with defiant, terrified, angry tears often streaming down my face. When I finished the 6 week course of radiation, I gave the nurses a plant because the radiation rooms were in a windowless basement and their flowers kept dying. The nurses gifted me with a box of Kleenex because, they said, they’d never seen a patient cry so much.
And now, more than a decade later, I’m on my way to tell my story to cancer patients who are in the thick of it. Now, as I sip my coffee and watch the sun rise over the bay, I’m glad I didn’t wander into that black darkness that would have ended my life. I’m glad I fought. I’m glad I took the double-dense chemo, the massive doses of antibiotics, the disfiguring surgeries, the treatments that took my fertility and (still) cause my joints to ache most of the time.
Because that gauntlet was the price of admission to the life I have now — a life of deep empathy for people who are suffering. A life of practicing compassion with patients here in the U.S., and in developing countries like Togo and South Sudan. A life of writing about God’s incredible love for us. A life of calling people to see marginalized people through God’s eyes, because Love looks around. A life of hugging my niece and nephews and reading them bedtime stories. A life of sitting around the table with my family, laughing so hard my stomach aches. A life of telling my story as a lifeline of hope to people who are drowning in grief and despair.
Life is messy, and hard and excruciating and dark and daunting sometimes.
But life is beautiful.
And life is worth it.
You can read more about my cancer journey, and the Somali refugee girls I met as I was recovering, in my memoir The Invisible Girls.
You can read more about my adventures practicing medicine in West Africa in my book WELL.