1. Mason, Kathryn S. BSN

Article Content

My mother loves food, loves to share it with others. Until recently, she could often be found in the kitchen making pasta and homemade tomato sauce. People gathered around her kitchen table, and anyone who stopped by was offered food and drink. But today at 75 years old, with decreased lung capacity limiting her cooking time, she loves to talk about food. Each week, during my regular phone call home, she delivers a list of restaurants she has gone to with friends and describes what she ate. If she's planning a visit to my house, we talk about what I am planning for dinner when she arrives-even if her trip is weeks away.


But one week the call was different. Alfred, my mother's gentlemen friend, delivered the news. "Your mother is in the hospital." I didn't panic. After all, I had initiated the call-if her condition was serious, wouldn't he have contacted me, the nurse in the family?


"What happened?" I asked. Ten minutes later-after he recounted, verbatim, the conversation in which he tried to convince my mother to go to the ED-I still didn't know why she was hospitalized. "Cut to the chase," I demanded. "What happened?"


Two days earlier, at dinner, he explained, my mother had been unable to clear a piece of eggplant parmesan from her throat. She hurried into the bathroom and fell into the bathtub. The collision created two shiners and multiple contusions, but Alfred couldn't convince her to go to the hospital-she simply did not want to wait in the ED. But on the morning of my call, when still she could not eat or swallow normally, she had finally relented.


Multiple X-rays and scans determined that there was no foreign body. There was, however, a left-lung mass that appeared to be wrapped around the main bronchus. She was hospitalized for further evaluation, and a bronchoscopy was scheduled for the following day. My mother had given Alfred and my brother strict instructions not to call me. She didn't want to worry me; she knew I would jump in my car and come. She was right. The next day, my three-hour drive to Philadelphia was fraught with worry. I'd made the same trip the week before. My mother and I had enjoyed a spectacular seafood dinner, then gone to the symphony to hear our favorite selection of Beethoven. Would there be no more nights like that one?


Distracted by the possibility of cancer, I had forgotten about her fall. So when I arrived at the hospital, I was stunned by her grossly ecchymotic face. But my mother seemed unconcerned about the bruising: she was upset that she was still unable to swallow. A diet of clear liquids simply would not do.


The bronchoscopy and biopsy verified the presence of small-cell carcinoma of the left lung, and specialists inundated her room to discuss treatment options. When they spoke, I recognized a listless, faraway look in her eyes. Her "biggest problem" was not the cancer, she told them, but the fact that she couldn't swallow. She told anyone who entered the room, including the housekeeping personnel, that she "just wanted to be able to swallow and eat again." As it had been "determined" that there was no foreign body, no one (including me) paid much attention to her repeated complaint.


However, on her ninth day of hospitalization, one day before she was to be discharged, a specialist must have wearied of her mantra about that "thing stuck in my throat." She was sent for an endoscopy-where a bay leaf was extracted from her throat. Tissue had begun to grow over the leaf, as it irritated the delicate mucous membranes.


She was elated. "I told you there was something there!!" she said again and again. Although she ate carefully at first ("I'm not going through that again!!"), her verve returned, and she was able to move on to the important treatment decisions that needed to be made about her life-threatening lung cancer. Able to eat, she was ready to give the necessary attention to fighting the disease.


Had it gone undetected, the small-cell carcinoma would have killed my mother within four months. One year later, she is cancer free and her hair has grown back. I visited my mother during each of her chemotherapy sessions. After each session, we went out for dinner and cocktails. She may have lost her hair, but never her appetite.