Dancing With Crabs (My Cancer Journey)
The New Year began with a bang for me and my husband. I had been having increasingly difficult, painful, and exhausting days over the past three and a half years. I had received a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis in the States, and had been given a regimen to deal with it. Two weeks before we made Aliyah, I had a final and complete physical. My doctor, Tana, found some alarming blood work results and told me to see a doctor as soon as I landed. So, two weeks in a new country, I’m sitting across from my “family doctor” who only speaks Hebrew and Russian. I show him the test results and he says in Hebrew : “Americayyim! Over-dramatie!! Al teedag! Lo khashoov!!!” – Basically, not important. Just fuggedaboudit…. so I did.
When I returned to California this past fall, I had another long appointment with Dr. Tana. She was furious that I hadn’t had anything done, as now my results in several areas were way off the charts. So I re-started the process with a new doctor when I got back home – a lovely young Israeli intern, completely fluent in English, compassionate, willing to listened help. To make a long story short, after weeks of waiting for appointments and test results, I sat in the endocrinologue’s office New Years’ Day (a regular work day here) to receive the news:
which was actually hysterical!!!! You see, in Hebrew the word for cancer is Sartan, the same word for “Crab” as in “Crab Nebula” or the “Crab constellation.” So, as John and I were sitting there – I heard the literal translation – “You have crabs!!!” “But, Doctor, how can this be? My husband and I have been faithful for way over 30 years!” I was laughing so hard, I’m sure he thought I was mishuggeh. The more I tried to explain the pun – the worse it got. And then: “Crabs!!!! But they’re not Kosher!!!” Even funnier!!! It was a great start to the whole affair.
So as it turned out, I had cancer of the thyroid, parathyroid, probable lymph system, possible kidney involvement. And my body had been enduring hypercalcemia for a very long time. The first thing John & I decided was to keep it as quiet as possible until we knew more. We definitely did not want the news leaked out to our kids and worry them beyond belief. I really didn’t want to add to the concerns of already-overloaded friends back in the States. We decided to keep ourselves in a very special place – soaking in Tehillim – the Psalms – and Scripture – especially through music – all day long; keeping focused on the positive – no bad/sad news, political intrigues or soap operas- only good things; keeping up with living life as abundantly as possible; and trying to find the humor in EVERYTHING. To try to do everything without whining or complaining!!!
It would mean finding the right doctors and hospital, and lots more tests. Most of the websites we went to were in Hebrew. Most of the “guides” in our local and regional medical communities were of little help, and only spoke limited English. Navigating the Israeli Socialized Medicine Machine is no easy feat even for the most experienced, let alone new immigrant with a six year old vocabulary. To see a specialist takes 6-8 weeks (did I hear a ticking clock?), and our first choice, a surgeon specializing in this, turned out to be a not-in-network-provider after waiting 7 weeks for the appointment. (In my mind I had planned to have the surgery before Passover, and had spent days buying a freezer and putting aside delicious and nutritious gourmet meals… in individual servings to last six weeks for John. Hey – it’s what I do & what I’m good at!!!) The doctor we went to see in Petach Tikvah referred us to a surgeon at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Another wait. More tests. (We had to cancel two sets of trips scheduled by California friends to visit us here because I thought I’d be in recovery) Finally I got my appointment – a full 15 minutes with Professor Gil Ziv, head of the department. Even more tests – lab work, X-rays, CT scans, radioactive boxes, MRIs, ultrasounds, machines that went ‘ding’ – all with extensive wait times and processing times(I wrote blogs and pre-scheduled them to last through July!).
Most of all, to the dismay of my husband, I learned to become a true Israeli! Yup!!!! To develop chutzpah like nothing you’ve ever seen. After weeks of endless waiting and paperwork in triplicate – faxes!!!! they still use faxing here!!!! – for everything – having to get authorization from the specialist, signed off by family doctor, approved by the khupat, medical insurance provider – I snapped one day. Yup. Finally melted down. Made a HUGE SCENE – Israeli style. I had gone to the Ultrasound Department last April for yet another test – prescribed in the same hospital by the chief of head and neck surgery. The administrator checked the computer and said, “The next available appointment is 21 June.” John said, very politely, “OK. We’ll take that one.” I defiantly slammed my notebook down on her desk, SHOUTING in Hebrew: THIS IS NOT OK!!!! I HAVE CANCER!!!! I NEED SURGERY!!! NOW!!!! I WILL NOT WAIT ANY LONGER!!!! THIS IS NOT OK!!!! I NEED AN ULTRASOUND NOW!!!! All this with actual foot stomping and wild hand gesticulations. She calmly put her thumb and fingers together, lowering them in a vertical line in the air. Everyone here knows this sign: wait a minute. Then she quietly responded: How is tomorrow at 7 in the evening?
I’ve learned a lot more about culture shock in the last few weeks, too. My date was set at Rambam. I told all my kids, who took it very well- they knew I was not afraid, and that I expected great results, that I had faith in the doctors and in G-d’s healing power – and that this could actually solve many years of suffering if this was the true cause of the problems. I told a couple Israeli friends who could help me with translations (and got back offers of books to read on spirituality;interesting carrot and Ultraviolet cures; aloe drinks; Mexican clinics; amulets; juicing. I know people are well intentioned and want the best, but at this point, we all have our own road to follow. Some of it was a culture shock for me). My next clue as to the journey ahead was the pre-op info email sent to me from Rambam. Someone there had especially translated it for me into English – the few languages represented on most signs and pamphlets are Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and Amharric (Ethiopian).
The pre-op instructions were hysterical!!!!! If you need help, press the bottom (of what? or who???) and the ants part – uproarious. Not to mention I’d be given a rope to wear (ancient Hebrew custom, I suppose?) After I’d been tranklized (by a tank?) , I’d find myself in the “awakening room.” Aaaah – must mean something about a path to spiritual enlightenment knowing Israel! The best part was the greeting: we pray for you a full recovery and complete health… it came with a prayer!!!! How awesome is that!!!! To get from a hospital a prayer??!!?? Please read each one… you won’t regret :0)
Here comes the culture shock!! So I came from a most luxurious Los Angeles/Hollywood/Beverly Hills/Westwood/Santa Monica/Thousand Oaks lifestyle – I had been in the hospitals at Thousand Oaks, UCLA, and Cedars Sinai. This is what the hospital rooms there looked like:
I did enter here with lowered expectations. I would not have to pay for anything at all, and there was no such thing as a private room. O.K. I could live with that. So the rooms were bare-bones sparse: 3-6 beds/room. No TV. No closet. No shelves or hooks. Communal bathroom for both patients and visitors down a ways to the left….also used as a janitor closet. A toilet. A tiny sink. A portable shower head and drain in the floor if one wanted to shower. Move the mops and buckets and trash cans first???? So – it wasn’t like the States… it was a bring your own blankie and pillows kind of place. Manual, hand-cranked cot-beds. You have to get out of bed and lift the crank to change the bed positions. You get the idea – “Welcome to the Ward.” At least it was clean. So, I’d been spoiled. I’ll deal with this. No problem!!!
Being from LA, all I can say is, I missed out on a golden opportunity for a comedy movie. If I had known in advance, I would have gotten together a camera crew. No doubt. Prepped for surgery, I was ready to go. I’d have not only the finest doctor and Technion professor who was head of the department, but also a bevy of young, smart, and gorgeous Israeli wonder women – the assistants, anesthetist, head nurses, ‘awakening room’ doctors. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to be more impressed with the women or their fashions….ankle bracelets and all.
The surgery went well. They successfully removed my thyroid and 2 parathyroid glands and cleaned out a couple lymph nodes. I won’t go into anything gorey, but after several hours, I was heavily and happily sedated and back in my ward by early evening – along with two other ladies. A Druze woman and a Muslim woman.
I kid you not!!!! Honest!!!! B’vadai! Mamash!!! It started around 10pm. John had left to go back home (45 minutes away). I’m resting comfortably. Not hallucinating. The parade starts. People with coolers and boxes and bags of food. The fast of Ramadan was over for the day, so family members started visiting their relatives in the hospital. At night. With food. Smells of food. Hot food. Grilled food. Middle Eastern spices. Pickled food. Oh my goodness!!!! It was a party. One that would last every night thereafter from about 10 to midnight or later – I endured for 11 days, then had to leave – but I’ll save that for later. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life! I always thought hospitals were supposed to be quiet, restful places. My goodness? How many people could you pack into a room? The lady beside the window had 14 visitors! 14!!!! And the party went on….
Day Two: my husband brings me a beautiful big bouquet of flowers – no place to put them – but greatly appreciated nonetheless. RULE: do NOT bring big beautiful bouquets to a hospital room with Arabic women. The patients and visitors went hysterical. What? What? What did I do????? O.K. So we didn’t know flowers are for cemeteries (and weddings) and are associated with death here. Oops. Go back and bring some shwarma and put up a hamsa amulet….
Day Three: my electrolytes go crazy and my body starts to go into shock. John is scurried out of the room and two nurses come in with an ECG. As they pull off my ‘rope,’ my bra is exposed – and this is where the camera crew really needed to be. Will some of my LA friends please help me turn this into a movie? I really think I’m dying, not to be overdramatic, but my limbs are getting stiff, I have no feeling below my neck, and I’m finding it a bit difficult to breathe. My alarms are dinging. The nurses see the bra – A Bali underwire tricot in a lavender gray with a bit of lace and a tiny rhinestone at center. Not to be un-tsinoot (immodest), but the full description of the underwear is crucial to the story. The nurses start to ogle over the brasiere!!! “Where did you get this? It is beautiful!!! Such support!!! Is it from Israel? How much you pay???” I kid you not!!!! How much you pay??!!!?? They’re looking at the tag!!!! “It is so beautiful! Ahhh! This is America!!! She’s from California!” I could hear every word….and all I could think of was “Someone, Please! Go get my husband to come in and video this-”
The Culture Shock of Food: O.K. So in the States I’m used to a post-op soft foods, really bland diet. Especially after major throat and neck surgery. You know, broth, tea, smoothies – working your way up to the comfort of warm, soft, creamy mashed potatoes. For the more adventurous, a nice tapioca. None such here. I give you a sample of the breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings. Mind you, I’m a foodie, adventurous, and loving to try new things – but seriously? Seriously????
So after day 10, I was granted the soft food diet tray. Might I add, the chili(???) was a mere 3 alarm version(piqante) in lieu of I’m guessing the traditional 5 alarm harif.
So John sprung me out yesterday. I could take it no longer – although my last two roommates will be lifelong friends (I’m missing Frieda and her husband, Yoel already). I can rest more comfortably here at home. It’s so peaceful here. The birds are singing and there’s a lovely breeze and view. Plus I have my DVDs and books and tablet. Novel thing: I have an actual pitcher of water next to my bed. In a US hospital, that item alone would have cost $54.36. I’ll be going back to Rambam on Sunday for pathology reports and follow up.
I’ve tried to keep this post rather light. On the more serious side, I’ve been keeping myself spiritually and physically in the most tip-top shape possible. In California, I learned about the art of palanca from a Mexican friend. You unite your current sufferings on behalf of others’ sufferings and offer them up to HaShem, G-d, as a sacrifice (korban in Hebrew). A bit like fasting, but also different. It gives dignity and meaning to an otherwise miserable situation. So I have a rather lengthy list in my little notebook I took to the hospital. It contains the names of all my friends and family out there with issues: physical, mental, family and financial burdens. Some people who are in a lot worse shape than I am. Know that you are in my prayers, and may all work together for only the good. I’ve been blessed in my life with amazing friends who have taught me a lot about my current journey – Janet, Sheila, Jackie, Penelope, Ellen, Joseph, Alyssia, Zev. They are my role models – people of extreme faith, courage, generosity, and humor.
Oh and for those of you who want to know how John is doing: he’s been an angel, a saint, a hero. A huge pillar to lean on. And he’s booked four trips for us from July-September. I’ll leave that for later, but it will give us both a change of environment and more adventures to look forward too – I just pray I can keep up(wink wink). Right now, I’m in the Holy Land, the Land of Miracles. I have everything I need right now, and give tremendous thanks to G-d, for his kindness and mercy endure forever!
I’d appreciate no comments in the section below. Feel free to email or PM if you want. Know that I’m really not supposed to be using my voice too much for the next three weeks, but I will keep you posted electronically- hopefully with only good news.