I first noticed my shortness of breath while climbing the steep hills of Seattle. Believing it due to depression, I paid no notice. I'd just been laid off from a job I hated, although it provided me with the means to survive, and was bitterly disappointed with my life in this city.
I returned to New York in January 1991 and spent the next 3 months job searching and moving from place to place. I suffered bouts of flu and other discomforts but still believed it was all psychological. Meanwhile my shortness of breath grew worse. I went to see my physician, Dr Douglas, three or four times but never fully voiced my true ailments. My depression and ill health deepened, and I finally moved to my mother's tiny apartment in New Jersey; my money and health were almost depleted.
I made another visit to Dr Douglas, as my breathing had become more difficult. He took x-rays of my chest and immediately sent me to get CAT scans and to see a specialist; my lungs were filling with fluid. After looking at the scans, the specialist, Dr Loblolly, said, "Lymphoma or Hodgkin's disease--you do not have cancer. It wouldn't have mattered if you'd come in earlier; the treatment would've been the same." A large and intimidating man, his words did little to comfort me.
After waiting 5 days, I finally checked into the hospital. I could barely breathe lying down; the night before, many thoughts of death and cancer came into my head. How would I fight this illness? Where was the help I needed? I went through a series of painful tests, growing weaker and weaker by the minute. I waited in an examination room for the next doctor and test.
A quiet calm man walked in. He introduced himself as the oncologist, Dr Barnes, and said, "I am going to perform a bone marrow biopsy to make sure the lymphoma has not spread to your bone marrow." His intelligent face and composed manner soothed me--here was someone who knew what he was doing. He performed the biopsy, which hurt, but as I felt no fear, it was bearable. He then had me see another doctor.
A tall man wearing a mustache and a grin came in, "Hello, I am Dr Leonard and I've come to help you feel better. I'm going to drain some of the fluid off the area around your heart to ease the pressure on it." lie helped me onto a stretcher to take me to presurgery.
"I heard you are an artist. When this is over, will you paint a picture lot me?"
"Yes, I would love to," I replied weakly. I was pleased that somebody told him I was an artist--my identity.
In presurgery he set me up on a bed, numbed my chest with local anesthetic, and began to drain the fluid. A crowd of nurses and interns gathered to watch. I averted my eyes from them and looked at Dr Leonard. For a young man he sure had a lot of grey hair. "You are such a good patient!" he exclaimed. Fearing I might distract him I watched his hands and the tubes filling up with red-brown muck. After the fourth tube filled, he stopped. "There, that should help you some." He smiled and dressed the wound.
The next day Dr Douglas walked in, smiled, and sat on my bed. I felt reassured by his presence. He had been my physician for 15 years and always made me feel safe.
"Darcy, Dr Leonard will have to perform a biopsy, just a small incision under your collar bone. We still don't know what type of lymphoma you have."
It wasn't until 6 pm that I was finally wheeled into the operating room. The anesthetic was administered and I became groggy. They attached things to me that I could not distinguish. I heard Dr Leonard speak over my head.
"Okay Darcy, we will be done real soon." I looked up and saw only his eyes. I went under.
I awoke in intensive care to see the anesthetist and Dr Leonard peering into my face, their heads quite close to mine.
The anesthetist smiled at me. "You're awake and we have you back. I spent most of the night here with you." She gestured to some blankets on the window sill. I turned to look at them and then blacked out. I awoke later and began to take in my situation. I was on a respirator --that explained the tubes in my nose and throat, and the beeping noise. But there were other things in me as well. Three IVs, a chest tube, a catheter in my bladder, a blood pressure strap around my arm, and a little box tied to a ribbon around my neck with three small suction cups placed near my heart.
Finally, I felt a strange numbness under my left breast; it was the incision Dr Leonard had made for the biopsy. Why it was there instead of below my collar bone, I did not know. (I found out later that he had performed life- saving surgery, as l had nearly drowned in the lymphoma muck.)
I received the first of my chemotherapy but was very groggy and unaware at the time. (I found out later that this, too, was lifesaving: the chemotherapy shrank my tumor by 70%.)
I wanted to see if I could still draw. (Gripping a little pencil and graph pad I got from the intern, I drew a potted plant that was on the counter of the nurse's station. It reminded me of a Matisse painting, sitting precariously near the edge. Yes, I still had the ability.
After 3 days in intensive care, I was moved to a double room in the hospital. I was given the second half of my first chemotherapy treatment; I was to have a total of six, all in two parts. Except for slight nausea and vomiting, I felt pretty good and began to draw in a sketchbook that my sister, Amy, had brought me. She also had brought some photos of my paintings to show Dr Douglas and Dr Leonard.
Both doctors loved my work and were amazed that I was really talented. I was very pleased. I told them that I wished to paint their portraits, including Dr Barnes'. They were eager and agreed. Dr Leonard said, "We will be the Three Musketeers!" and he gestured with an imaginary sword, "One for all and all for one!"