My Journey from Hell to Hope
Divine Intervention & the Path That Was Taken
Once upon a time, I lived what seemed like an idyllic life. I was one of those people who went through their days thinking things only happened to other people. Oh, it was not without incident; my parents were divorced when I was very young and my grandfather passed away a few years later. My mother was a single, working mother, whose circle of friends were mostly divorced, so I did not feel the stigma of being a child of a broken home. I was shy, but had friends, did my homework, played baseball in the street and had a typical 50s childhood. Then, when I was 19, my father died, having been out of touch for years, and I was devastated. That was a difficult time, but wasn’t enough to deter my belief in the “other people” theory.
I was young, married to the love of my life and waiting for the birth of my first child. Years went by; two more kids; struggling to pay bills sometimes, but that seemed normal. My kids were healthy, happy and bright; my husband an all round good guy, but the time came when the idyll started to slip. I really believed that my husband and I would be together forever, but then one Saturday in November, he left and my world shattered! After falling apart for far too long, I had to pick up the pieces and get on with life for the sake of my children. After working for years for a good friend in a retail store, a job I could do in my sleep, I was offered a position with a large company and my life changed yet again.
Over the years I had various positions within the various manifestations of that company. I happened to be overseeing a small team doing correspondence and that is when it began!
It actually began with a trip I didn’t want to take. I love to travel and after many years of fearing the idea of flying, I now look forward to it. I’m always ready to go somewhere, but this trip was not one to which I was looking forward. Two weeks of company training in Lubbock, Texas. I’m not crazy about training classes in general and this class seemed to be a class just to have a class. I dreaded being in the class for two weeks and, with apologies to those who live there, Lubbock wasn’t on my list of places I’d like to go! I was going to be there for two weeks, with a weekend in between and research didn’t yield any interesting places to fill my down time. I went so far as to consider a two-hour drive to Amarillo, because, although it was that scenic, Amarillo has some very “eccentric” sights. Going on that trip, however, was a blessing in disguise and sent me on an incredible journey from hell to a place called Hope.
I am not really a believer in fate, but rather a big believer in the “butterfly effect.” I really do think that the slightest choice can make a real difference between where you go and the path not taken. What if I had not gone to Lubbock?
I flew to Lubbock on a Sunday, settled into my hotel and prepared to spend the next two weeks in the local company call center in a training class. The next morning, I went to the call center and the first thing I found was that it was quite a hike from the parking lot to the front door. Walking from the car, I felt short of breath, but attributed it to asthma. My boss, who was based in Lubbock, met me at the door and as we started down the hall, he pointed out that the hall which ran the length of the call center was a quarter of a mile long. He then proceeded to point out that the training room we were in was about three quarters of the way down the hall! I made it, but was very winded when we got there! As the week progressed, each day found the walk became more difficult for me. I found myself needing to stop and sit several times to make the walk to and from the training room. In the evenings, I even found it a challenge just walking down to the hotel dining room.
By the end of that first week, it occurred to me that something had to be wrong. I mentioned to a co-worker that I was thinking of going to an Urgent Care center and she pointed out that the company had a physician’s assistant on staff at the call center and that I should check with her first (Yes, I wondered about the full time PA on staff! In 23 years with the company and five locations, we never had that particular perk!).
The PA checked some vitals and didn’t find anything that she was concerned about, but the correlation between having just flown to Lubbock and breathing problems should not be ignored. She pointed out that she was concerned about the possibility of a pulmonary embolism (blot clot on the lung) and suggested that I go to a local emergency room to have that checked. She took a moment to confirm that my insurance would cover me for the hospital she suggested and then sent me off to the Texas Tech University Medical Center.
She assured me that, although the medical center was their local county hospital, they were an excellent facility and I have to agree. I was treated with consideration and kindness from the moment I walked in the door. Unlike many emergency room experiences, I didn’t wait long at all. Based on my description of the symptoms and, again, knowing I had recently flown, they too were concerned about the possibility of a pulmonary embolism and immediately ordered a CT scan, in addition to a chest x-ray and an EKG. Both the nurse and the doctor were very young, but very competent and considerate.
After the CT scan, I waited a short time in a room and then the doctor and nurse came in together, with what I later realized was stunned shock on their faces. I have rarely been really sick, so was not expecting terrible news, which is why I didn’t pick up on how they looked. They proceeded to tell me that there was no evidence of blood clots, but that the CT scan had shown a mass on my lung; that it was what is called a spiculated (meaning it has “spiky” attributes) mass, which is an almost certain indication that the mass is malignant. They were telling me I had lung cancer.
Of all the things I expected to hear, that was the last thing I expected. Until you hear that word said to you, you cannot imagine the impact it has. I think it might be the most shocking word in the English language, when they are talking about you or a loved one. Oddly enough, I didn’t get hysterical; I’m not sure I even cried at first; the shock was just overwhelming. Thinking back, I was unusually composed, while at the same time feeling that I was descending into Hell. I cannot even say what thoughts were running through my mind as to what was next.
They then proceeded to tell me that staying in Lubbock for another week to continue working and completing the second week of training was not among my options. I had the choice of either checking into their hospital immediately or getting the first flight I could back home to my family and to immediately see my own doctor. Of course, I chose the latter, but first I had to make a phone call.
The first thing I needed to do was let my family know I was coming home and why. I decided to call my daughter-in-law, Lisa, first. She is a registered nurse and the voice of reason in the family when it comes to medical things. As the mother of a son born with a serious heart condition, she has kept us all informed and balanced, while raising that special little boy into the extraordinary young man he is now. Trying to keep my emotions in check, I dialed her cell number and got no answer, so I called her Mom to ask if she knew where Lisa was and she said they were home barbecuing. Calling the house meant there was a good chance my son would answer and I knew I would not hold it together. I asked Pam, Lisa’s Mom, to call the house and ask that Lisa call my cell. I didn’t say why; I told her Lisa would explain and she accepted that and did as I asked. A moment later, my phone rang; I answered it and simply told Lisa that I needed her to speak with someone. The nurse, whose name, unfortunately, I cannot recall, took the phone and explained my situation to Lisa. After they spoke, I took the phone and spoke to Lisa, telling her I was going to come home as soon as possible and would call with my flight information.
Thus my family joined my emotional nose dive! Lisa, of course, told my son, Mike and then called my daughter, Tracy. Tracy called my sister-in-law, Debbie, who is for all intents and purposes, my sister. She called her Mom, which was how my ex-husband got the news. Initially, my ex-mother in law misunderstood and thought it was my daughter who was ill, so I’m sure it gave my ex a few bad moments, although in all truth, his concern for me through all of this has been a heartwarming surprise. While I was sitting in the ER waiting to be released, my friend Carole called just to say hi, so that is how she got the news and that was the point, while still in the hospital, where I started to lose it. It was the next morning, sitting at the airport in Lubbock, waiting for my flight, before I had the strength to call my brother. That was probably the most gut-wrenching of the calls. His shock was palpable; hearing the pain clearly in his voice! I think it took a bit to sink in because he called me later and was obviously crying.
Before I left the hospital, they told me something that, later when I had time to think about it, would rock my world and make me think about that “path not taken” or the one that was. The doctor explained to me that, although there was a strong indication of cancer, the cancer was not responsible for my breathing problems. He explained that it was more likely that it was the altitude in Lubbock. I’ve always struggled some with altitude, but Lubbock does not make you think of high altitudes. It turns out that it is high enough to be troublesome, a fact that was proven when, as I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, I had no trouble breathing.
Once I was released from the hospital, I went back to my hotel and began the process of getting home. One of the trainers had given me his phone number, offering to have me over for dinner during the weekend, as I would be in town for Easter. I called him to tell him I would not make dinner and to say I would not be able to complete the class and why I requested that he let my boss, whom I had not been able to contact, know that I was going home. He was incredibly kind and concerned, telling me not to worry and do what I needed to do.
Next came the need to get a flight home. Since I wasn’t due to fly home for another week, I had to change the flight. I called American Express and, again, was treated with kindness and concern and with no hassle. The rep with whom I spoke gave me two options; one rather early in the day and the other around noon. I opted for the latter as I wasn’t sure how efficient I was going to be in getting packed and in bed at a decent hour; not that I really expected to sleep. He explained that changing the ticket did involve a $150.00 fee, which, at the time was not something I was prepared to worry about, but in the end, no one cared about that at all. The company never questioned the charge nor was I ever asked to pay it.
So, there I was, alone in a hotel room in Lubbock, Texas, terrified and numb. I couldn’t face dinner, so I packed my bags and curled up on the couch with a Pay Per View movie: Machine Gun Preacher! Oddly enough, when I finally did try to go to bed, I actually slept some.
In the morning, I left the hotel, still numb, still scared and headed to the airport. Everything about that morning is a bit of a blur. I managed to return my rental car, get my bags checked and got through security and then just found a place to sit. That was when I called my brother and the emotional roller coaster really started taking its toll.
One of the mistakes I made in rearranging my flight was not paying attention to the connecting flight information. As it turned out, my connecting flight was due to leave 20 minutes after my flight from Lubbock landed in Dallas. Dallas-Fort Worth is a huge airport and, of course, the connecting flight was on the complete other side of the airport. Fortunately, they have these shuttle carts that they will call for you if you need assistance. Since I was still challenged in getting around because I was so short of breath, this was a Godsend and I made it to the connecting flight, but with very little time to spare.
I have to say that in making the necessary changes and arrangements, every person with whom I had interactions were incredibly kind and concerned; from the American Express agent to the hotel desk clerk to the rental car agent and more. At times, it make it a little harder to keep my emotions in check, but I was truly grateful for the kindness of strangers.
I didn’t give much thought to whether flying was a good idea, but I would not have cared; I just wanted to get home. When I came off the plane in Los Angeles, my son, Mike and my daughter-in-law, Lisa, were standing there waiting for me. Words cannot express how emotional that moment was for me or how much it meant for them to be there.
Throughout the ordeal I describe below, my family was incredibly supportive, as were friends. I know it was difficult for my daughter, Tracy, and granddaughter, Madison, to be on the other side of the country, but they stayed in constant contact. I don’t know what I would have done without my daughter in law, Lisa. She was with me every step of the way, at every appointment and every test. She was my rock and the conduit to the family. Her family took me in while I recovered and took great care of me, but that’s a story for later. And later, when some complications cropped up and I needed care at home, my sister, Debbie, dropped everything and came for a week the minute she heard. Thank God, she has a loving and understanding husband in Steve. My ex, my brother and my son, Chris, were in constant contact as well. I am so overwhelmingly blessed by the family I have.
So, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Now what???
Oddly enough, if I had known that Lubbock was at a somewhat elevated altitude, I might have attributed my problems to just that and not made that fated trip to the emergency room. Divine intervention?
I was not able to make an appointment with my doctor until Monday, so Mike and Lisa urged me to stay with them over the weekend, instead of going home. It was the best thing for me; I sure didn’t need a weekend alone with my thoughts.
When I finally saw my doctor on Monday, she was unusually distant, an odd thing for her as she and I had grown close over the years. She quickly came to the point that I had cancer and needed to deal with it, offering me several choices for treatment options, but recommending that we try to get an appointment with the City of Hope. She explained that she would need to write a letter of recommendation and hope I was accepted. Whatever she wrote must have been compelling, because within days, I had an appointment, something I later learned was usually not that timely. That appointment started my remarkable journey from Hell to Hope with a doctor named Dan Raz.
As I write this section, it has been over seven years since that fateful day in Lubbock. I was diagnosed on April 6th and after all of the testing and diagnostics, had surgery on May 16th, 2012.
It’s difficult to clearly express the depth of my feelings about the City of Hope. The care I received and the people I encountered there. I feel so blessed to have been in that sublime world where everyone makes you feel cared about and special. This was not just those charged with my care, but those passing by in the halls, even maintenance people. At a time when you are feeling your mortality and fear is a palpable thing, I felt so safe and comfortable in a place that really does feel like a mini city. Every time I had a test or blood work done, it was with the utmost concern for my comfort and peace of mind.
After weeks of tests and discussion, it was initially determined, because it was caught early, that treatment would consist of surgery only. In early conversations, I got the impression that the surgery would remove the entire upper left lobe. Not knowing much about it, I was not overly concerned. Dr Raz evoked faith and trust to a degree it is hard to explain. In the end, only a portion of the lung was removed. Before we got there, though, things changed. Upon reading one of the tests, it appeared there was a lymph node that was a problem, so now we were looking at chemotherapy and radiation. It was very disheartening. I met with a radiologist who explained what would take place. I was waiting for my appointment with the Oncologist to discuss chemo, trying to prepare myself for what was to come, when I got a call from Dr. Raz at work. He told me that the reading of the test had been erroneous and that the surgery would proceed as planned… in two days! One of my employees, with whom I was very close, was at my desk and I grabbed her hand when he told me. What a moment that was! Now I had to arrange time off of work immediately, not always an easy task with my employers, but we made it work.
The surgery was a success and the fear I didn’t really acknowledge disappeared when I woke up to see my son and daughter in law. I never told anyone, but I went into the surgery with a great deal of fear. Uncertain I would wake up from it. I was in the hospital for a week, with several days where I was told I might go home tomorrow, but it took a few days more than planned. I was released to go home with my family, where I stayed for two weeks before going home. While there, everyone was so caring and helpful; I couldn’t have asked for a better recuperation time. The nurse in Lisa was diligent about the times I was to take my medications; I would be sitting there and she would appear with a little cup containing pills and a glass of water! The kids were still in school, so the days were quiet and I slept as lot. When they were home, though, they were always ready to help me. The day before I went home, I was actually able to walk some distance to go to my grandson’s baseball game.
On a side note, I had two best friends in high school and the three of were pretty much joined at the hip. Over the years, our lives went in different directions and we didn’t see each other very often, but my love for them never diminished. While I was staying with Mike and Lisa in Long Beach, one of those friends, Bob, came to visit me and we talked forever, had a great time and talked about tentative plans to get together again. I treasure that day, because within the year, I got a call from the other member of our threesome telling me we had lost him to a heart attack. I was heartbroken, but so grateful for that day.
The most important part of this amazing journey was Dr. Raz and his team, especially Tammy Tittlefitz, his Physician’s Assistant. It is hard to describe the personality he projects. While he conveys the professional knowledge that inspires confidence and “hope” he also exudes a sense of serenity and caring that always gave me comfort. It was sometime after I started seeing him that I read his history on the website and his background in medicine is impressive. Without knowing this, I always had the utmost confidence in him and never questioned his approach to my situation. While he never promised anything he could not be absolutely certain of, his confidence made me calmer and less afraid. He never projected a sense of gloom and doom, although we were dealing with something that terrifies everyone: Cancer. Tammy, more exuberant, is Ying to his Yang and is a joy to work with as well. Together, they made what started as terrifying, not so terrifying. In fact, as bizarre as it might seem to see any part of having cancer as being positive, going through the experience in the City of Hope community was a positive experience. With his serene manner, his professional knowledge and caring attitude, Dr Raz and the “citizens” of the City of Hope gave me just that: Hope.
I know that not every cancer diagnosis ends as well as mine, but I would like to think that my story leads others to approach treatment with a positive attitude, but also to think about life. I never smoked a day in my life; I was asked about that a lot. I did however, live with a mother who chain smoked during the entire 19 years I lived with her. If you smoke, think about quitting, not just for yourself, but out of love for your family. It is my hope that my story gives others HOPE!
Hope born out of Hell!