Sunday, July 4, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.33: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 33

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Wrong Turn

After my father retired, he started going to doctors about his diabetes. Although he knew that my mother would outlive him, he was aware that she wouldn't enjoy taking care of him bedridden and blind, especially if she knew he had been able to avoid it. He developed better habits with his medicines. Even better, he tried to get along with the doctors.

To everyone's surprise, it was my mother who got ill next. My father called me for help.

"Ann has got something wrong with her lungs." He sounded puzzled.

When I got there, we talked for a while. It turned out that my mother had contracted a lung disease from the air conditioner in her portable classroom. My father couldn't move her or drive her around.

She had known it was happening. She complained to her school about it for two years. The administration never did anything, though. Her illness from it got more and more serious. Finally, she got too sick to work. She could barely move (the only way in which she would ever admit to being too ill to work) and, at that point, it was hard for her to get to a doctor.

When she did go, the doctors dismissed the problem. That's where I came in.

"I can't talk to them," my father said. "Anyway, I can't drive. And your mother really, really shouldn't drive."


When I took my mother to her doctor and advocated for additional tests, the staff decided to allow another round. And another. A few days after one of the tests, the doctors called, alarmed by what they had discovered. My mother had developed a fungal infection in her lungs. That explained why her blood oxygen readings and other symptoms kept getting worse. (The fact that the problem was fungal also explained the failure of earlier tests to discover the infection. The labs had been instructed to look for bacteria and viruses.)

Her ordeal with the lung infection lasted for months. She tried medications. She tried therapies. She underwent surgeries. Three times, the doctors put her under and scraped fungus from her lungs. On the last occasion, she almost didn't recover from the operation. (Giving anesthesia to someone with a lung problem is tricky.) During the cycle of treatments, my fathers eyes improved for a few weeks at a time and degraded for a few weeks, too. Sometimes he could drive her to her appointments. Sometimes he called me to do it.

Eventually, the doctors announced they were done. My mother's lungs were not fine. The physicians simply didn't want to risk putting her under anesthesia again.

For a year, my mother had trouble getting out of bed. She coughed while walking. She wheezed all the time, even while sitting down. The effort of an ordinary chore around the house was too much for her. Then came her diagnosis of cancer.

"The doctor says it's not too bad," she told me as I marched into her living room. "It's just at stage two."

"They said maybe stage three, Ann," my father called.

"Right, I have to go back to the doctor." She wheezed as she walked me to the kitchen. "They're doing more tests. But they have a plan."

The cancer turned out to be at stage four but the extent that was discovered didn't affect her treatment plan much. The doctors wanted to try radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery in that order. Her first radiation treatments didn't seem to make much difference. Her chemotherapy, though, had the odd effect of improving her lungs. The difference was drastic. She stopped wheezing. In fact, she started doing more house chores. Normally, of course, people get weaker during chemotherapy. My mother got stronger.

Unfortunately, the next thing that happened was a pre-operative radiation treatment nearly killed her.

It was a one-time event. The radiation technician that day was a substitute. He aimed the particle beam in what appeared to be a normal way but, in fact, he had missed the target and destroyed part of her healthy stomach. It took an hour for the problematic symptoms to set in. From that point on, her life was in danger.

My father's eyes weren't in good shape. He drove her to the emergency room anyway.

A surgeon began cutting by the next morning. From the ER, they reported that they were shocked to see the extent of the damage. On advice from her regular doctors, the team tried to combine their emergency procedure with cancer removal.

"We had to spend most of the time on the radiation damage," the doctor explained later, when they emerged at the finish.

"So she'll need another surgery for the cancer?" my father asked.

"That would need done anyway, no matter how much we got this time. We got some, for sure. But she's going to have to continue with chemotherapy. I know you might not like the idea but she should probably go back to radiation treatments near the end, just before the surgery."

"When will that happen?" he said.

"Not for months." The doctor stuff his mask into the right pocket of his gown. "I'll write up my opinion to make sure of it."

After nearly dying from the radiation treatment, she was getting told she'd have to go back to it. And everyone in the family agreed it was the right thing.

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