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Monday, July 13, 2009

The Six Million Dollar Miracle

We can rebuild her – We have the technology.

That title is a bit of a misnomer. Not the miracle part, but the price tag associated with it. After all, in the 1970s, the operations that gave Steve Austin his bionic abilities may have cost around six million dollars, but in today’s terms, the actual cost attached to all of that hardware may put it closer to what the government gave AIG in TARP funds. However, to say that my Mother-in-Law was given, not only bionic parts, but a six million dollar cumulative price tag for all her surgeries is probably incorrect. In fact, they didn’t exactly add anything, more like they took pieces out. OK, I should have titled this “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” Are these 70s and early 80s pop culture references doing anything for ya? Thought not. Well, then let’s just find the chase and cut to it.

I spoke before about my unwillingness to understand how someone can have faith in a higher power when all they’ve done is fight to keep death at bay. This time around, I think I’ll look a little more positive on the subject but I won’t give into too much praise of a higher being keeping her around. Here’s a quick rundown on what we’ve had so far.

In 1997 after a bout with a tricky case of pneumonia, she found out that she had a football sized tumor on her kidney. When they opened her up on the table, they wished that they hadn’t. RCC (Renal Cell Carcinoma) had metastasized into her lungs. They put her at stage IV and removed the tumor, along with the kidney, and an ovary. When I say “They wished they hadn’t” I mean that had they known what was going on inside her, they wouldn’t have bothered and told her to go home and be comfortable. But they didn’t. Instead, they put her into a study for an experimental treatment that would quite literally take her to death’s door in order to reboot her immune system. Consider it the Jurassic Park computer system method.

When I met her daughter, my future wife, she had already been through the treatments and come out with a clean bill of health, for now. All of the spots on her lungs had disappeared and she had been cancer free for a year. I have since learned that you are never really free from it, regardless of how well scans look.

Jump forward to 2006. For nearly 10 years, my M-I-L has had clean scans but a new spot showed up on her pancreas. Soon, the doom and gloom crept back into the thoughts of her family. Statistically speaking, for her to live past five years would have put her into a bracket of about 5%. I’m not exactly sure but I’ve heard various differences pushing her closer to a 1% bracket. But, now she had to endure more surgery.

After 12 hours on the table, the doctors in Pittsburgh removed part of her pancreas, and her spleen, making recovery a difficult process. She spent five days in recovery, more because of the lack of empty rooms than anything else, but she really didn’t look that good and being lumped together in that bullpen of other surgical patients didn’t do much for her recovery process. Still, she came out on the other side with no apparent tumors or other spots in her system. The pathology came back as renal cell cancer; her old nemesis had shot seeds into her system and found a new place to sleep.

The three years that followed gave her an opportunity to see the birth of another grandchild, my daughter. “Gammy,” as my little one refers to her, is pretty much an everyday fixture in her life as we only live a few minutes away and because of the renewed bond between mother and daughter, we see them often, if not every night. We even share the stomach flu as we all got hit with it on Valentine’s Day, providing more evidence that I should just skip holidays all together.

But then something happened. Gammy wasn’t bouncing back from the stomach flu like the rest of us. That missing spleen might have something to do with it, or it could be that something more sinister was going on in there. She began to have problems focusing. Headaches became an everyday occurrence. She started to seem confused and even stopped at a mailbox and drove through a red light. Something wasn’t right. My wife, ever the enforcer when it comes to medical issues started to harp on her about seeing a doctor and her coworkers even forced her to keep an appointment for an MRI in March of 2009. Before she made it back to her desk after the scan, the hospital had called her. She needed to go directly to the ER and consult with an oncologist and neurologist. She had a brain tumor. After the diagnosis, we all realized that these symptoms were noticed long before the stomach flu incident. At New Year’s she seemed distant.

On March 18th, she went in for surgery to remove the tumor. Considering her last surgery lasted 12 hours, we expected a long day ahead of us, but the doctors came out to see my wife and her dad after an hour and a half. What had gone wrong? Could they not operate? Was it really bad? After losing all color in the face, they were given the news. She’s out of surgery and they had already removed the entire tumor. The surgery was quick and she was out of the hospital in two days. A follow up treatment, of radiation to the area, provided extra defense in case they had missed something.

During her stay in the hospital, the announcement of her other daughter’s impeding nuptials provided a method for getting my in laws to go on vacation. In their 43 years of marriage, they had never taken one. So, in we decided to tag along with the newlyweds and get a house at the beach. It would be the first time my daughter and her Gammy would see the beach.

The trip almost got cancelled. My M-I-L started to feel shortness of breath and would get tired walking a small distance. She also developed a lump on her arm. While in the hospital to do additional scans of her abdomen, everything came together. Another mass was found and she was suffering from blood clots in her arm, legs, and lungs. She ended up back in the hospital over Mother’s Day weekend for treatment. An EKG showed a weakened heart and surgery was almost scrubbed because of her condition. If anything, vacation would be cut because of surgery to remove the mass that had now been found in her remaining ovary. Why she did not have a hysterectomy back in 1997 is beyond any of us. Soon, we had a new list of problems to address. Would she be strong enough for surgery? Is this renal cell or ovarian? Can her remaining kidney handle continued stress from the dye used in scans and another surgery?

Due to the EKG results, her surgery was being postponed for a month. The doctors did not feel that the tumor was dangerous enough to operate right now, so they felt they could wait. The blood clots were treated but they waffled on clearance for the trip. It was a 12 hour drive to the beach and she would have to keep her legs elevated and couldn’t sit for long periods of time. Having a two year old daughter would mean numerous stops along the way, so that wasn’t a problem. Also, thanks to my daughter, we needed to have a vehicle that could handle all of her things as well as ours, so we rented a Dodge Grand Caravan to make the trip. In a twist of fate, the blood clots nearly hampered but ultimately allowed for her to go on vacation. A trip, I feel, did wonders for her outlook and health. We had a three story house with lots of steps to climb, and a pool for her to exercise and relax in during the week. After we returned home, her multiple doctors all gave her a clean bill of health for surgery, citing that she was in better condition than she had been in months, perhaps years.

Skipping the Fourth of July was not an option my daughter shares a birthday with the adjoining day. A cookout/birthday party served as a celebration and feast before surgery. The following Thursday would be her latest date with the surgical blade. Because of the volatile nature of ovarian cancer, she could not be biopsied until after surgery. Running the risk of rupturing the tumor could escalate her into a higher stage. I had just learned that once you get classified as stage IV RCC, you keep that no matter how clean your scans are there was no sense in adding a high stage of ovarian cancer if it was possible.

After an hour and a half or surgery, she had been put into recovery. The gynecological oncologist sat with us in a room and discussed the procedure. He was used to see ovarian cancer on a regular basis and from what he saw, this was not it. There was a very condensed and compact area that was affected. There were no nodules or other infected tissue which suggested to him that this was indeed, renal cell cancer. Pathology could reverse that opinion but for now, we breathed a sigh of relief. When you have to root for one kind of cancer over another you start to feel like your rooting for one political candidate who is not as despicable as the other while still maintaining that they are both evil. When asked about the short length of surgery he said that it would have gone quicker, but they spent an hour cutting through a lot of scar tissue from previous surgeries in 1997 and 2006. At one point before surgery, my M-I-L wondered if they could just put a zipper in place instead of having to constantly cut her open since she’s becoming an old pro at this. I told her in recovery that the next time they ought to have it down to fifteen minutes. It could be like ordering a pizza. It’ll be done in 30 minutes or it’s free. Maybe you could start using a drive through for this. While trying not to pop a stitch from laughing at the lameness of my jokes, she said, “There won’t be another one.” I’m not sure if that means she hopes that this is the last time she’ll have to do this or that she feels that her luck has just about run out.

Think about it, while simultaneously keeping the Pittsburgh medical profession in business, she’s pared away about ever spare part you can imagine. How long before it’s something she can’t live without? She’s already a diabetic; she has OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea), hypertension, high blood pressure, and is prone to pulmonary emboli. She takes more drugs than the ballplayers listed on the Mitchell Report and the bands on Ozzfest. Sooner or later, she won’t be treatable. It’s not like she can take that amazing cocktail of drugs like she did in 1997. She was in perfect health back then. Now, she wouldn’t survive the extreme dosage needed when she first got diagnosed. Lesser doses may not be sufficient to rid her of more tumors.

Through all this, we have maintained that this is a chronic condition instead of a terminal one. Cancer has taken a heck of a lot of her body, but not her spirit. Approaching the back nine of her 60s has given her the frame of mind that she’s just playing with the house money and the deck has been getting colder as the time marches on. The Sword of Damocles is constantly hanging overhead waiting for her to exhale. One day, luck will run out and I hope that is well into her 90s or more as long as she can maintain a good quality of life. I know my wife will be devastated when the day comes and she wants every day she can get but she has to know that it’s not her choice and ultimately, there may come a time when she can’t fight. I’m just hoping that she goes twelve rounds with death before losing at Battleship, Clue, Electric Football, or Twister. Be that as it may, the fight rages on and she does not go gently into that good night. If there is a higher power, I think he’s just not ready for her. She is a force to be reckoned with say what you will about Mother-in-Laws; I think I’d like to keep her around.

Frankly, I think the medical profession ought to be asking her to do speaking tours. She’s beaten the odds so many times; I’m beginning to she’s unable to be killed. After all, her mother is in the upper half of the 80s and is still kicking it in an assisted living facility with an artificial hip, bouts with congestive heart failure, and some dementia. My wife also has a resilient nature as she’s come back from thyroid disease and MS to lead a normal life. So, to adjust for inflation, maybe my Mother-in-Law is the $30 million dollar woman, or perhaps just priceless.

1 comment:

Diane T said...

Your mother-in-law sounds like a formidable woman ... may she have many more years with you and your family.

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