Wednesday, November 14, 2012

November 14, 2012 - Of Sandy and Other Hurricanes

We’ve been having quite an experience around here, living through Hurricane Sandy. We live six blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. We were never evacuated, and the storm surge never reached our house, but those to the east of us didn’t fare nearly so well. The area east of the NJ Transit railroad tracks (just two blocks from our house) was evacuated. Not much further along the road was the high-water mark. Not too much further than that, there was three or four feet of water inside the houses.

No one remembers a storm this bad. Not even Vince, a 94-year-old member of our church. I asked him, and he was very clear in confirming that this is the worst he’s ever seen.

We had no electricity for five nights. Some in our community still haven’t gotten it back.

Fortunately, I invested in a battery pack for the Bi-Pap machine I use to sleep at night (for my obstructive sleep apnea). I’d purchased a small generator after Hurricane Irene, and that was sufficient to charge the battery pack and our cell phones, as well as run a mini-refrigerator.

One aspect of the storm that didn’t occur to me until much later was how Dr. Lerner’s oncology practice fared.  He and his colleagues run a chemo suite out of their office.  No power means no IV drips, and with no IV drips (and no power to run the refrigerators where certain medicines are kept), there are no chemo treatments.

I knew something was up on my most recent follow-up visit, when I noticed the office staff still had their Halloween decorations up. Holiday decorations are a big deal at the Atlantic Oncology/Hematology office. I suppose it’s something the nurses and technicians do to try to boost patient morale.

I was in the office on November 9. That’s more than a week after Halloween. The fact that the staff left the decorations up for so long is a sure sign that they’d been preoccupied with much weightier matters.

I confirmed the same when I got in to see the doctor.  I asked Dr. Lerner how they’d managed, and he confirmed that it was pretty chaotic.  Some of the sicker patients under the group’s care they had admitted into the hospital. Others simply had to miss their chemo treatments for nearly a week — not a good situation, but with the power failures so widespread, there was nowhere else (except the hospital) where those patients could have been taken, in order to stay on their treatment schedule.

That’s something folks rarely think about when making the decision about where to receive their chemo treatments. Hospitals have emergency generators, but I’m not sure if the outpatient chemo suite rates that jolt of extra power.

Just a few days ago I attended an educational event sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The organizers of this evening conference asked me to participate in a panel discussion on survivorship issues.

I was struck, as I sat down to dinner with my fellow cancer survivors, that no one was talking about Hurricane Sandy — even though it had been just about the only topic of discussion everywhere else. It seemed ironic to view a discussion about cancer to be less anxiety-ridden than one about cancer.

There’s an instant communion when two cancer survivors come together. Once we share our diagnoses and staging with one another, and possibly a little bit of the story of how we were diagnosed we just know we’re simpatico.

The hurricane wasn’t far from my mind, though, as I briefly shared the story of my experiences. I told my fellow survivors and their families that the experience of diagnosis is not unlike that of living through a hurricane.

It actually takes quite a while for most people to be diagnosed for certain.  In my case, it was about two months since my first suspicious-looking ultrasound and the sit-down in Dr. Lerner’s office, when he informed Claire and me that I have cancer. In between, there were various scans, then minor surgery to obtain the biopsy samples, then a week or so while we waited for the pathologist to analyze the results.

In the case of a hurricane, there’s also a whole lot of waiting beforehand. Everyone knows the storm is coming, but most of us take our time about preparing for that eventuality.  Denial is often a factor.

As the hurricane barrels along the coast, getting closer by the hour, everyone nervously awaits each test result, each piece of information, that can she some light on the situation.

That is, until all the lights go out. The darkness can seem interminable under those conditions. In the darkness there is chaos and confusion and a group of people rapidly scrambling to get back in touch with the only reality they’ve ever known. Yet, that reality never returns.  Because the new normal is the order of the day.

As we lived through those days without electrical power, that was our new normal. We adapted. We did what had to be done. We survived.

A cancer diagnosis is a perfect storm.  I’m living testimony that there is plenty of life on the other side of that life-changing experience