2. My First Steps on to the Path

By In Pre-Treatment

Ok, I am tired of this pain and blurred vision. I make an appointment with a PCP in town. Looking through doctors on my insurance company’s website is like playing Tinder with one’s health. There are hundreds of doctors and for some reason one has to be a doctor to find one. I flipped through the links as if they were dates I had no interest in and finally settled on a name. At that time, it was only a name…I figured anyone could give me a physical and tell me what’s wrong. I run 5-plus miles a day and I am a vegan, so of course this is nothing big. It is amazing to see how one feels they are in control, only to find out that there is less one can control than one thinks. Being fit and eating right won’t save me from getting hit by a bus…especially a bus you just don’t see coming.

I call the number on the screen and I make an appointment to see my new PCP. The staff was cordial and direct. I was always intimidated by doctors, so I was a good patient and waited for an opening and showed up early. The waiting room was a scene of out my Peace Corps days…it was chaos. There were sick people everywhere, children running around, a small and old television playing some daytime drama. I felt if I wasn’t sick coming in, then I would be walking out. It was either that, or this was THE place to go if you were ill. I couldn’t help but judge a little. There were paper and boxes everywhere; I was in a hovel of bills and charts and after about an hour, my name, my sweet name was finally called. I side-stepped by the boxes, not wanting to throw off their elaborate gravitational pull. The rest of the office was the same claustrophobic wave that would crash into you like stormy waves onto the shore. That feeling of “I need to be here” was desperately fighting against “get me the hell out of here.”

I waited in a closed exam room for quite some time. I even tried the trick of opening the door as if the doctor didn’t know I was in that particular exam room, yet I waited more an my hopes rose and tumbled with every passing person. I had enough time to memorize the room fixtures, the instruments, the posters, the fact that I saw them all with blurred vision and a headache is the only thing the kept me there. A knock on the already opened door and in comes my new doctor. I was looking into the eyes and face of Larry David. The older, white-haired, Jewish man…doctor, and for some reason I felt at ease. The ceiling opened up, the walls were wider, I saw no boxes, I really just felt “okay”. Dr. T was old school. We talked about my symptoms and my physical was fine. He ordered blood work and told me to make an appointment to come back for the results.

The boxes started to come back into view and the walls closed in as I waited at the one computer to be scheduled for another appointment. I left the waiting room, holding my breadth and wanting nothing more than a bath in Purell. The days went on and nothing improved, but not much had gotten worse, so I figured my tests would show some pill-killing virus and I would be on my way to health.

It had been a week. I dreaded going in for my results. I wanted the results, but I wanted to meet Dr. T at a coffee shop and not step foot back into the office of sickness. I made it back to his office, the same room that I had memorized, so this time I was hopeful my wait would not last long. He came in and said my blood work was spot on. “Spot on, what the fuck do you mean, spot on,” I thought to myself. He explained that my labs were normal and as far as he could see, I was healthy.

So, I am either really twisted and like imagining pain and vision impairment, or something outside of the physical and blood work was happening. He wanted me to go to a neurologist. He had a friend that was a very good neurologist and she could help me more than he could. The whole time, I am thinking, “neurologist”?…that is not the type of treatment I was look towards. No pill?…no, “go meditate more”?…no, “it’s just stress”?! He gave me her number and told me to call from the hallway phone. The hallway phone was what my grandmother had…a phone stuck to a wall with a curly chord about a mile long. Who walks that far with a phone?!…and better yet, who still has a phone with a chord?!

I used this relic of my childhood to call the next doctor to make an appointment. It was early October and after explaining to the scheduler what the situation was, I was given and appointment for mid January. I didn’t know what to say or do…I had pain and vision issues that were not rectifying themselves and I was faced with three months of “hang in there.” I put the ancient phone down and on my way out, I walked by Dr. T’s office and poked my head in, “thank you for your care, doctor.” He asked how the phone call went and I relayed that I was able to make an appointment, but I would need to wait until January. “Sit down,” he says. He picks up the phone in his office, which was the same make and model of the one in the hall; however, the chord was much shorter and showed years of use. He called a number and asked to speak to Dr. H, with just his name, he did more in one second than I was trying to accomplish for 10 minutes only to result in a three month wait. “Dr. H, how are you? I am trying to refer a very nice young man to come see you and he was told is first option was January. This cannot wait until January…thank you, say hi to the family.” He looks at me with a grin belonging to a Cheshire cat, “she will see you next Friday.”

The week was long. My headaches continued and the pressure in my head and behind my eyes numbed my desire to open them, let alone keep them open and focus through the head pain to concentrate on work…but we are designed to work, so I did what I was programmed to do. The days drew closer and finally the day arose that I met Dr. H.

I made the short walk from my work. The office was littered with awards and magazine covers for “100 Best Doctors in the US”, “Best in Neurology”, and on and on. It was a small practice, and the minute I sat down in the lobby, I realized for the first time that I have never thought of neurology before, and all of the people around looked like grizzled veterans, having gone through one neurological avenue or another.  I thought to myself, “I don’t belong here.” But, it turns out, I did belong there…I was about to start my own neurological journey. At least this office did not cause me anxiety. There was no fuzzy, loud television, no boxes, no chaos. I sat there staring at Dr. H’s profile on the wall.

“Mr. Archibald,…?…you can come on back. My name Dr. H.”  Every doctors’ office I had ever been into, there was a nurse or staff member to bring to back to the doctor. It is half the adventure being a patient; I go here for my weight and height, over in this room for blood pressure, temperature and chatter, and then perhaps a resident will stop by and then you finally meet with the doctor. This office was different. I was greeted by my neurologist…in person…in the lobby. It set a different tone, not only in the comfort that I felt with Dr. H, but one of a serious nature. I soon learned that she was a kind, incredibly intelligent, and thoughtful neurologist, not to mention she was personable and real. We did some field tests and neurological tests and again, I passed them all with the constant complaint of headaches and blurred vision. She was puzzled. She left the room and return moments later with a script in her hand…FINALLY, I thought, a medicinal cure for what ails me! “OK, Mr. Archibald, I want you go downstairs. This is a prescription for an MRI. Now, don’t worry, this is just a precaution to rule things out and to see what might be going on.” Her kindness and approach masked her concerns and I felt at ease. It was progress…I had done every other test, why not this one. I wished her well and she said she would call my in a few days with the results.

The plan was to go downstairs have my MRI and then go back to the office to finish my day. It was Friday, October 31st…Halloween. I had no plans for the evening, but with my work schedule being so intense, I looked forward to a good sleep and some relaxation. I took the stairs down, signed in and waited in the not so impressive lobby of the Radiology Center. A large, open, room with a television blaring daytime TV. The crowd now went from those with neurologic issues to those with issues of all kinds. Broken bones, torn ligaments, and of course those waiting to find out what the human eyes of doctors couldn’t detect without images. This lobby reminded me of the DMV. Everyone in the room was either looking to be in pain, agitation, fear or boredom. That damn TV is crushing my headache. I am constantly checking my blackberry to answer work emails while I anxiously wait for the procedure so I can get back to work. My name is called. I have never done an MRI before, but I knew it wasn’t something one wants to do. My dad had numerous MRI’s for his cancer and he was one of the most claustrophobic people I have ever met. My reflection of my dad needing open MRIs and medication in order to stay calm was rattling around my head. He was strong. He endured a lot, especially in the final months and weeks of his life and let’s just say that I don’t hold myself to the same esteem. I went from annoyed to nervous and my anxiety rose as I was directed to go back to a locker where I would stow my belongings, trading them for oversized pajamas.

Uh, I think MRI is of my head, so I’m not sure why I need to get all naked and walk around in paper-thin gown while in the company of strangers, but apparently, that was the drill. My MRI was what they call “with and without contract”, meaning the inject a ectoplasmic goo inside your veins half way through the MRI in order to see any irregularities that appear. All I could think of is that I had to do TWO MRIs, now realizing that the MRI would be consisting of no contrast and then a rush of the Ghostbusters goo into my veins to repeat the process.

The technician got the IV all set in my arm and away we went into the MRI room. It was cold, bright, and white has high beams on a dark highway…blinding and disorienting. My head now booming from the light, I looked forward to climbing into the machine to find shade. The techs went through the procedure with me and mainly told me my only job was to lay still. Cool, I thought, nap time!!!!

I laid down and a mask was placed over my face and head to lock me into place. If you have not experienced this before, it is an amazingly chaotic feeling. Like putting your dog or cat in a muzzle. My whole body was free to roam, but my essential central nervous system was tightened to the table by a rack…I was in face jail…head prison. I took deep breaths and they handed me a blue ball attached to a wire…”squeeze this if you are having an problem and we will stop and come in to talk to you.” Wait…so, you are leaving the room and I am in here in a paper suit, with my head locked in and a blue squeeze ball and wire as my only defense? My thoughts were racing…I heard nothing after that except for the closing door.

The machine started to drag me into its own jaws and as my head passed the threshold I realized there was no way I was going to fit in this tiny tube. The saliva build up in the back of my throat, inch by inch I became more and more anxious as if I was going in, but there was no way out. At the end of machine, I went under a small mirror and thought, who the hell needs a mirror here? Am I that vain? Is this guy steering this machine with a rear view mirror? There in the distance behind me, I picture came into focus. I had a flash back to my college dorm as I looked at this off-centered scene of a small island, one palm tree and open clear-blue water. This must be a joke…I am in a laboratory in a basement, inside a tubular machine and somebody things a $5 dorm poster is going to calm my anxiety and relax me to a point where I have a solo party, celebrating my imaginary world of island life. SQUEEZE SQUEEZE SQUEEZE…I squeezed that blue ball like I was wielding a sword against my mortal enemy…SQUEEZE SQUEEZE SQUEEZE…what the hell, where are the people who put me in this white cave…panic was setting in and suddenly the door opened at the speed of a slow breeze. “HELP, somebody…please help.”

The machine started releasing me from its open jaws, the island faded from view and I again was looking at the bright lights in the ceiling of the white cave. “Are you OK?”, he asked. “I need to get up and take some deep breaths”, I replied. I was unlocked from the mask and found instant FREEDOM! I took some deep breaths…deep breaths that I never needed to do before in my 32 years on this planet…and talked myself back into the procedure. It will be one hour, I thought…then I tried to think of all the things that I don’t like that take about an hour. If I sat through mass every Sunday as a child, I can do this…it was no CCD, but neither was it pure hell.  I repeated the process; the mask clamped down and the blue ball rested in my hand. It was placed in my hand with a somewhat nervous hand-off, like serving an over-filled bucket of popcorn to a customer that just spilled is first bucket and was coming back for more. I am sure the tech just wanted to go home and now he was dealing with this crazy dude whom was not afraid to squeeze the blue ball as if it were part of the routine.

I re-entered, like luggage on a conveyor belt at Baggage Claim. I waited a short second and there appeared that dorm poster again. I had to chuckle this time saying to myself that I never want to visit that damn island! It took everything I had to focus, concentrate, memorize the sounds and patterns in order to try and time the ending of this misery knowing that my half time was just a repeat from the first half, only with that green party mixture coursed through my body. If you have never been in an MRI, picture a small manhole with construction workers jack hammering around your head. If I didn’t have a massive headache before, I certainly did now. Beep, pound, long beep, chucka chucka chucka, siren blaring, jack-hammer, baby screams, car crash, repeat.

A voice comes across the speaker, “OK, we are half way done and we are going to administer the contrast.” HALF WAY?!?!?!…the thought provoked laughter and tears at the same time, but then the contrast hit my veins like a cold steel train forging through my bloodstream. Slowly up my arm, washing across my lips as if kissed by a winter witch…leaving me with a numb sensation I was not sure I would shed. My frostbite lips slowly regained temperature. It felt like I was out in the extreme cold and entered a warm house and put my hands under hot water…painful, but with a purpose. The sensation faded and after more knocks, pounding, blaring, jack-hammer, deewoo deewoo deewoo. My memory failed me as I swore it was time for this ordeal to end. Then, finally, I heard the voice again…”you are all done, we are coming in to get you.” Normally that would sound ominous, but the statement was sweet, sweet nectar to my ears.

Now, I have never been held against my will, well, outside of this exercise, but it felt like the Green Beret were going to burst down the door and free me from this torture device. I waited with baited breadth and an overwhelming joy came across my entire body when I heard the door open. I was slowly freed and I immediately asked, “so, did you see anything.” Blank stares and a reply, “We will send the images to your doctor and she will contact you with results.” So, I get naked and given a paper-thin suit, placed in a bright white, cold room and receive a torture I had yet to experience, and you are not going to tell me anything?! Can I at least get an “atta boy”, “well done”, “thanks for coming in”? I mean I am paying for this.

I put my clothes back on, still feeling like I just had the worst one-night stand, told myself I am pretty and walked out the door with a false sense of dignity. Up the stairs from the basement and back into the summer day…it was bright, but nowhere near the watts of the room I just fled. My head pounding as I rejoined the daily grind in DC, I walked to the corner of the street. I usually will cross if no traffic was coming and sometimes even if traffic is coming…I just move a little faster. I had been away from work for the first half of the day, but I couldn’t cross…my head contracting and my eyes blinded. I finally cross the street, now only two blocks from my office and my phone rings. Hmm, I have never seen this number before…it is Friday afternoon and I just want to finish my work and go home, yet I answer.

“Mr. Archibald?”…”yes”…”this is Dr. H.” “Where are you?” I explained that I was across the street and was going back to work. “I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone, but I received the MRI report quickly, and it shows that you have a brain tumor”………”Mr. Archibald????”

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