1. Meierhoffer, Linda MS, MPA, BA


Did she invite this illness?


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As we pulled into the hotel parking lot in Gallup, New Mexico, I flipped open my blinking cell phone and saw two voice mails and a text message from my gynecologist. When I reached her later that evening she said she'd consulted with an oncologist about the lesion she'd noticed during my recent dilation and curettage; because of previous biopsy results and abnormal Pap smears, I was at risk for cancer and needed a complete hysterectomy.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Lisa Dietrich

The timing was lousy: my husband Mark and I were driving from Kansas City to Palm Springs, California, for three months in a rented house, where we planned to work surrounded by the crimson bougainvillea and desert sun we loved. Though my doctor recommended that we come right back, we decided to push on to Palm Springs and stay there for the rest of January.


Far too soon, I was back home in February's deep freeze, on my way into a bright and shiny operating room. Although the operation went smoothly and my postoperative pathology results showed that the lesion was benign, three weeks later a large clot threatened to burst my freshly stapled abdominal incision.


I felt like my tidy life was coming unwound. Instead of salvaging some last bit of our long-awaited winter escape, I'd be operated on again. I was 51, exactly the age my father had been the last time I saw him alive, as he was wheeled into an OR for cancer surgery. And my mother had been just 50 when she'd died of a cerebral hemorrhage. As I let go of Mark's hand and watched my daughter Megan's face, the nurses wheeled me through the OR doors, and I wondered if I would ever see my family again.


Afterwards, all the beds were full on the surgical unit, so I was transferred from the recovery room to the oncology floor. Four North was filled with bald-headed, battle-scarred patients. Depressed that I was once again tethered to a catheter bag and iv pole, afraid that the clot would return, and angry that I couldn't control what was happening to me, I counted the minutes until my next push of morphine and the number of steps it took for me to creep, bent at the waist, to the bathroom. I was in a dark place that I had never known existed, one where a lack of hormones and sleep were infused with fear and the remnants of anesthesia.


"Do you ever think of harming yourself?" my doctor asked, as I sat slumped against the lumpy pillows, my expression flat, tears slipping down my chin and onto my neck. "No," I said, "but for the first time I can understand what makes someone want to."


Had I invited this surgery? Had I tempted death with the unspoken fear that I'd die young like Mama and Daddy? I thought of my first yoga teacher, whose behavior was sometimes as unbalanced as I was as a new student in tree pose, and what she'd told us once in class: "People open themselves up to disease and let it in." While some small part of me wanted to get better, go back to California with Mark, and be around to watch our kids get married and have children, I cried more during those four days in the hospital than I'd cried in 40 years.


The night before I was released, I dreamed I was under water. I awoke gasping, with panic that coursed from my abdomen to my throat. I grabbed for the call button. Jeff, the night-shift RN, was there in moments. "Help me," I whispered. "I'm drowning."


In a soothing voice, he talked until the anxiety released itself from my chest, my arms, my wide-open eyes. He fed me ice chips, straightened my twisted blankets, and gave me a pill to help me sleep; his gentle touch was something I had not had since I was a scared little girl and my mother stroked my head when the lightning danced on my bedroom walls at night.


In the morning, Jeff brought his little girl to meet me and see the picture of my cat I'd placed on the windowsill to keep me company. Her stepmother was a nurse at the same hospital; her shift began just as Jeff's ended, and she'd bring Jeff's daughter to work so that Jeff could drive her home.


That afternoon before I was discharged, my own daughter Megan came from work dressed in a pinstriped suit. I started to cry when I saw her, all grown up and about the same age I was when she was born. "Don't, Mom, you'll make me start," she told me.


I had crazy clown hair, roughed up and sticking out from all the tossing I'd done the night before. "Wow, you don't look so good," she said with a laugh as she sat down next to me. Without another word, Megan picked up the comb from my bedside table and began to smooth my hair.


Only weeks later did I learn that Jeff's first wife had died of cancer several years earlier, leaving his little girl without a mother. I figure he knew exactly how it felt to hope for breath and wonder where the air would come from.