Monday, November 21, 2011

Lessons from the Cancer Centre

Since mid-October, I've spent every weekday morning sitting in the regional cancer centre while my mom has radiation for squamous cell carcinoma that didn't take the hint and go away surgically. While it can be a tough place to hang out, because reality tends to stare you in the face, it's also a good place for basic reminders on the importance of little things in our lives. Here's what I learned:

  • We are stronger together. When you hang out in the cancer centre, there aren't alot of secrets. Either you are fighting cancer yourself, or you are supporting someone who is fighting cancer. You don't have to make excuses why you are there, or go into detailed explanations. Cancer is the great equalizer, and there's something strangely comforting about the solidarity that builds as you start to recognize the same faces every day. Race, creed, belief, age, gender and sex don't matter. Cancer attacks everyone equally.
  • Do unto others. The second day of mom's treatment, two of the gentlemen, and I use that in the truest sense of the word, shared information about the designated parking area and a monthly parking pass. Having this small piece of information took away two big stressors in my mom's daily journey. I have since passed the information on to others. None of us heard it from hospital administration (although hopefully that will change after my battle with the bureacracy over a parking permit)-it came from fellow patients. 
  • Small things matter.  Small things can make a big difference when you're facing a nasty adversary. Patients receive a printout of all their appointments on the first day, so you can see the journey ahead, and you know what you are doing and when. Changing an appointment is not a hassle. There are lockers with keys that patients can use if they need to change into hospital gowns. The main waiting area for radiation has coffee and tea and comfortable chairs. Volunteers restock the magazines on a regular basis. 
  • You have a name. Once you get into the treatment areas, you are not a chart. You are a person with a name, and people remember you and ask about you. They remember if you have a family, or grandchildren, they compliment you on a scarf or an outfit, and they treat you with respect. Efficiency does not have to be rude.
  • Courage wears many faces. I interviewed Dr Craig McFadyen, surgeon and Regional VP of the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre a few months ago for an article about the Cancer Centre that unfortunately died  when Waterloo was tanked. He said that he was always humbled and inspired by the courage of the patients fighting cancer. “Every day you see extraordinary examples of courage in the Centre. Cancer is a tough enemy and we use things that can hurt you to cure you. The perseverance that people have to continue on and keep fighting inspires me every day.” 
God bless the patients, the caregivers and the families. Together we are stronger.

The Silo Mentality

I've just spent the last few days running through bureaucratic hurdles to get a piece of paper that is now sitting on the dashboard of my car. What should have been a simple process turned into a 3 day, blood pressure increasing, stress inducing nightmare because too many people were caught into a "not my job" mentality.

In a nutshell, here's what happened. Since the middle of October, I have spent every weekday morning at the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre with my mom as she has radiation for recurrent sqamous cell carcinoma. It's a particularly nasty and rapid growing skin cancer that has a habit of spreading elsewhere if you don't deal with it. Since it's been surgically evicted 4 times and came back, this time the surgeon suggested frying it instead.

Parking at the hospital is tricky and expensive. On the second day of treatment, two of the patients in the radiation centre told us about the designated parking area for outpatient oncology, and about a monthly parking pass which worked out much cheaper than paying by the day. My mom can't walk very far, and since the radiation has progressed, some days she's holding on to my arm for dear life. Having a designated area and the parking pass took one less stress away on what has been a tough grind. We have 6 appointments to go, and I still have to convince her 3 days out of 5 to tough it out and finish.

Everything went along smoothly until last Thursday. We were running a bit late and arrived in the designated parking area, only to encounter a security guard who was issuing tickets right, left and centre. I pulled out mom's schedule to show that she had daily radiation, only to be informed that I needed a permit to park in the area, and if I remained, he would ticket me $25. It was the first I'd heard of a permit. All of the spots in the area were designated for outpatient renal and oncology patients. Most of the spots required permits, but not all of them did, and I was always careful to park in ones that were not permit designated. When I told him if I moved my car, my mother would be late, he pointed out that it wasn't his problem we were running late, but I couldn't stay there. I asked him where to get one of these permits, because it was the first I'd heard of it, and he told me to go wherever she was having treatment, but "he didn't work in that area and it wasn't his problem." I sent mom ahead, praying she got there without tripping (she almost did.) and moved my car.

I asked at one desk and was told I needed to go to a different desk. I asked at THAT desk and was told to go back to the first desk. I asked about the parking permit and was told that the permits were only for patients who drove themselves, so my mother wouldn't qualify. I could either "drop her at the door" or she would have to walk from wherever in the parking lot. When I questioned the policy, and I'll state for the record that I was a tad irate and angry at this point, the person I was talking to refused to talk to me any further, and another person helpfully waved a piece of paper with the policy on it under my nose. I was so angry I was incoherent and shaking, my mom was stressed, and so we left.

I then fired off a complaint letter. When it wasn't answered, I contacted someone that I had dealt with when I wrote a story about the centre for the now dead OpenFile Waterloo Region. Five minutes after I contacted THAT person,I got a phone call, followed by another phone call. After I outlined what had happened, including the lack of communication and the disconnects, I received the permit, which is all I was trying to get in the first place. Turns out, the policy had been misinterpreted somewhere down the line.

Policies and rules are in place for a reason. However, there are larger rules that trump any piece of paper, and those are "do unto others..." and "use common sense."  Common sense seems to be sorely lacking these days. I remember having conversations with a lifelong friend of mine when she was going through the Customs College at Rigaud, QC, on her way to be a border guard. I told her that there was no substitute for common sense on the line. For example, back when I worked at Passenger Ops at Toronto's Pearson Airport, we would often have a flight from Florida arrive around the same time as a flight from a drug-source country. According to the letter of the law, anyone who had bought more than they were supposed to were legally required to pay duties and taxes. So you could tie up the customs hall charging people $20-$30 extra dollars because they bought the bag of oranges and the mouse ears, or you could concentrate your efforts on the high risk flight.It's all about choices, and sometimes common sense trumps legislation.

"Not my job" and "not my department" seems to be common responses these days, and nothing can escalate a situation faster than being shuffled around from place to place. While it may be true that the situation is not in the job description, taking a couple of minutes to help out another human being is in our life job description. How different would life be if we didn't need a "random act of kindness" day because we were all just looking out for each other. 

Hopefully, my battle with bureacracy will help some other cancer patient or family member down the line. We're all in this life together.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Across the Rainbow Bridge

In 1992, I made the acquaintance of a six-month old brown spotted tabby, who was peering hopefully at me from a cage at the humane society. His previous owners had moved, and they put him up for adoption with all his papers.  He stuck a paw out and suckered me in, and I took him home. His name at the time was Jesse, which I thought was a dumb name for a cat, but what to call the handsome fellow? When I tried to clip his claws that evening, everytime I thought he was going to settle down and accept things, he came back with another round of growls, teeth and I named him Rocky. Yesterday, I had to make the heart rendering decision to help him across the Rainbow Bridge. At the age of 20, he was still determined to snoop around, living up to one of his nicknames "Inspector 12."

My previous Tortie had been named Tisha, but we called her Tickey. My mom kept calling Rocky Tickey at the beginning, so he quickly became known as "BooBoo cat" after the cat in Laverne and Shirley. Because he was a prim and proper cat, he was usually referred to as Mr. Boo.

I took him back to my apartment the first day. He stepped out of the cage, looked around, spotted the food and the water and settled in. The very first night he curled up on the bottom of my bed, and there he stayed for the next 20 years. When I married Dave, he and Boo had a battle of wits. Dave had decreed no cats in the bedroom. For the first 3 months after we were married, he banished Boo at bedtime, and Boo spent the rest of the night yowling outside the door, or scratching at the  carpet. After 3 months, he had the carpet down to backing in the area by the door. I convinced Dave to try a cat bed. Boo would start the night in the cat bed, and then once Dave was asleep, he would sneak onto my side of the bed and hunker down. The jig was up the night Dave woke up and looked at the bottom of the bed and realized the mound of blankets had ears and eyes shining back at him. For the next 2 weeks, Dave would spring upright several times a night, jack-in-the-box fashion to try to catch Boo on the bed. One night I was going to bed with a migraine, and I pointed and Boo and told him to lie down., and then I pointed at Dave and told HIM to lie down, and the battle was over. Boo stayed on the bed. In later years, he slept between us, often curling into the curve of Dave's legs.

Boo was a protective cat, and if he slept on your head, there was trouble a foot. Invariably, something befell the person he protected. My mom fell and broke her hip the day after Boo had slept on her head. I was in a bad car accident, and Dave fell going out the steps and sprained his ankle. Each time, Boo had slept on our heads. I learned to pay attention at my peril.

For all he was protective, Mr. Boo was also prim and proper. He had a very strong idea about how a cat should behave. He was always impeccably groomed, and he would never have sit completely on our laps-he would sit near us or beside us, but never on us. If he was feeling particularly friendly, he would sit on the arm of the chair and put 2 paws on my lap. Only 2 paws, mind you, boundaries had to be maintained. Max didn't have much dignity, and Boo was appalled by his antics. Max once jumped to the top of the bedroom door, and managed to get himself straddling the door-right paws on one side, left paws on the other. Boo was on the bed, and he stood up, executed a 180 degree turn and turned with his back to Max. He wanted nothing to do with THAT-Max was on his own! I suspect Boo was a British Colonel in India in a previous life.

Boo never got too upset about things. He outlived 2 other cats, and survived the arrival of our daughter. She was a bit bouncy for his taste when she was small, but he got quite fond of her when she was old enough to give him chin rubs.  He stayed upstairs most of the time in the last years of his life, so she never formed an attachment. When the house got quiet when she was finally in bed, he would emerge and hop up beside me in my chair for a visit.  He liked the gas fireplace, and he was very fond of the air conditioning in our bedroom. IF the air wasn't on this summer, he stayed on the floor on Dave's side of the bed. As soon as the air came on, he would be back on his spot on my side of the bed, although he always moved to Dave's side in the evening, just so that Dave would understand that he had shared my bed long before Dave did!

He seemed to get old overnight, and the last few days have been tough. I didn't want my dear old friend to suffer, and it seemed on Saturday that he was asking for my help to cross the Rainbow Bridge. I know that sounds flakey, but it was true. He was ready to move on.  He deserved to die with the same dignity that he lived his life, and he couldn't groom himself any longer.

So here's to my dear old friend. You made me laugh, you protected me, you kept me company and you sailed through all the chaotic times calmly and serenely. You never once scratched or bit when the kid was small and a bit too enthusiastic with petting you. You accepted  (grudgingly) other animals into the house and you still enjoyed chasing your old mousey right to the end.

Be at peace Mr. Boo. I hope there's lots of new places to explore. I'll miss you terribly.