Golden Lights in the Darkness

Today is my last radiotherapy treatment and this afternoon, while I was undergoing the treatment, I listened to the whirr of the beams as they travelled across my chest, smelled that elemental mixture of salt, wind, and rain that I will forever associate with this experience, and kept my eyes tightly shut in case some of the rays get into my eyes and blind me.

It’s an unnerving experience, and scary thoughts go through my head. Impossible, illogical musings whose only advantage is that they keep me distracted enough to remain absolutely still in the sometimes awkward position I have to maintain for the few minutes that I’m on the table.

I suddenly noticed that the technicians were playing one of my favourite songs, and it made me smile in appreciation. Now, I shouldn’t be surprised by this because before my second treatment started, I mentioned I liked the songs that they were playing.

Immediately, Eileen, one of the technicians, asked me what kind of music I’d like to hear during the treatment. They had several playlists, she told me, and it would not be a problem to select what I wanted to hear. I was delighted, and mentioned 80s songs by artists like INXS, Eurythmics, etc. But today, in particular, I was in the mood to hear “Don’t you forget about me” by Simple Minds.

So, that’s what was played in the background. And every time, when I went for a treatment, I got to listen to the music I like.

In my opinion, life is not for the feint of heart. Every day, we face challenges and obstacles interspersed with episodes or flashes of joy and pleasure. Ideally, we should be able to reach inside ourselves for courage and strength and faith; these things can pull us through even the toughest situations, experts say. They also say that we should depend on ourselves, and not on others, or these people can become crutches and we can become co-dependent or over-reliant.

Ideally.

But really?!

Courage, strength, faith, and self-reliance sometimes need a boost. Luckily, most of us are surrounded by help, whether we know it or not. This help is not always obvious or big unmistakable gestures, and so, we often overlook it. But it is there, and it is often hidden in plain sight.

Going to the hospital for procedures and treatments can buckle even the strongest people. But the reception staff and technicians I have met during this period have invariably been helpful and supportive. They have also taken the time to spend an extra minute or two chatting to me, taking an interest in what I have to say.

And in the above situations, I am a real chatterbox.

To be clear, talking a lot to perfect strangers is not my normal state. This only happens when I am extremely nervous or stressed. Words flow out of me like a torrent and the typical reaction of the recipients of this deluge is for this person to recoil slightly or to subtly edge away from me and stare at me with eyes wide open. It can be a little intimidating. No, I can be a little intimidating or overpowering in those circumstances, I’ve been told.

The technicians I have met over the last 3 weeks have been simply wonderful. Eileen, Sydnee, Roman, Veronica, Claudio, Elizabeth and Brianna, to name a few, have withstood my nervous chatter admirably. In fact, due to their friendliness and caring attitude, they have reduced the stress of the treatments and made it possible for me to relax and simply be more, if not completely, my normal self.

They accomplished this in several small, but meaningful ways. For example, they learned to pronounce my name correctly (rather a difficult feat for most people). In addition, they always greeted me with a genuine, cheery smile when I came into the treatment room and remembered some of the small things I had mentioned the previous day. They even laughed at my little jokes about them being closet Picasso or hieroglyphic artists as they draw a variety of obscure symbols on my chest for the treatments.

It sounds bizarre, but I actually felt welcome, like an honoured guest — in a radiotherapy treatment room! And comfortable enough to exchange a few laughing comments while they position me for the treatment. And I’m not the only one that feels that way, judging by the often relieved, smiling faces that emerge from the treatment room and the few moments of small talk exchanged between the patients and the technicians as they usher them out of the room.

After 3 long weeks, I am delighted to say that today is my last treatment. But this is the perplexing truth, I am going to miss them all!

The technicians don’t have an easy job; it is very specialized work and they are continually dealing with people who are in distress. The job requires sensitivity and understanding. And lots of patience, I suspect, particularly with what they have to contend with. And I get the impression that at times, it can be a lot!

I believe that it’s human nature to either be at our best or at our worse in very stressful situations. If you need proof, look at the extreme behaviour of people during wars and natural disasters. We hear tales of incredible heroics or dastardly exploitation. Luckily, most patients in the Radiology waiting room and Treatment rooms tend to fall into the first category.

Most, but not all.

A couple of weeks ago, I met an elderly patient, Alice, in the waiting room. She sat next to me, looking quite annoyed. So, while waiting for my name to appear on the screen that directs you to the Treatment area and specific room, I started a very desultory conversation with her.

She almost immediately started to complain about everything from the long waiting times to the incompetent technicians. She gave specifics, claiming that on her first treatment, two “tiny Chinese girls” were trying (and failing) to get her into the right position for her treatment. She apparently put up such a fuss that they called in a supervisor. She read them the Riot Act, she told me proudly, and informed them that if they couldn’t do their job — and quickly — she was going to leave. She gave them a finite amount of time to sort everything out, including giving her the treatment.

“I am sure they call me a difficult patient,” she said, nodding her head in satisfaction, “but I didn’t ask to be here. They should be making my life easier, not harder.”

And they didn’t ask to be insulted and, I would imagine, humiliated by her.

I can understand her frustration because I know how awkward the positioning can be. For radiation to the chest area, my arms have to be placed above my head. I have to hold on to a little bar and to keep that position, unmoving, for several minutes. In addition, my body is shifted sometimes to the right or to the left and I have to fight a natural instinct to try to help the technicians as they work. My gown has to be opened so that the markings on my chest can be verified and lined up with the machine, and it is cold (!) and somewhat embarrassing to be seen in such a vulnerable position.

Furthermore, the positions can be downright painful at times. In my case, I have to be arranged in such a way that a lot of my upper body weight settles on the area of my surgery. And even though the surgery was 5 years ago, the area is still quite sensitive, especially when there is pressure on it or if I get over-tired. And radiotherapy treatments make you very tired.

But I try to remember, unlike Alice and presumably other patients who are overwhelmed by the discomfort of the entire situation, that the technicians are not plotting behind my back to cause me pain, discomfort, or embarrassment. On the contrary, they have done their best to make me as comfortable and as relaxed as possible before, during, and after each treatment.

I really don’t know how they cope with everything their job entails on a daily basis. How do they manage to make us feel safe and protected, in such a stressful environment? Because they do.

Even on this last day of my treatment, there was an acknowedgement of my successful passage through the process. After I retied my robe and put on my boots, Sydnee led me to the administrative section of the treatment room. As I prepared to thank her and Eileen for their excellent care of me, Eileen told me that it was not over yet.

They had a tradition for the patients as they left the treatment room (for the last time, they hoped). I was to ring the medium sized brass bell with writing along the rim. It looked like the brass bells that you find in Hindu temples. You ring these to attract the attention of the Gods, so they can hear your prayers and supplications, and also hopefully grant your wishes.

I felt a lump in my throat — for once not due to the radiotherapy effects! - and following Eileen’s instructions, I rang the bell. The sound was crisp and clear, and I swear it sounded joyful. Or maybe that was just the way I felt as I stepped over the threshold of that treatment room back into the world I have more or less ignored since my treatments began.

As I left, I felt that I was talking their hopes and good wishes for my cure with me! That is a powerful feeling, and it was given so generously by people who barely know me and yet have been so caring of me throughout this whole process.

So, I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart, and to ask you to remember my story the next time you or a loved one are at the hospital undergoing an uncomfortable or lengthy procedure. Any discomfort you feel and however long you have to wait for a treatment or test is more or less inevitable and no-one’s fault.

Certainly not those golden lights in the Radiology Department who handle themselves professionally while simultaneously treating each patient as if he or she is their top priority.

Namaste!

PS If by some chance you ever read this, my golden lights, I hope that Dr. K didn’t scold you when I snitched that you were practicing your drawing skills on me! He looked so serious when I told him about your bad habits!

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