From Yank to Full-Blooded Irishman
by Harvey Gould
My wife, Karen and I were in Ireland during the summer of 2006, on “holiday” from San Francisco, me in free fall from my MF, dropping in hemoglobin in the course of the same day from an insanely low 6.1 to a double crisis low of 5.6. These were levels at which it was difficult for me to walk. I couldn’t take more than a few steps without having to stop because I’d have trouble breathing.
Even while lying in bed I felt my heart thumping like a scared rabbit’s as my body was engaged in a desperate effort to make up for the drastically diminished internal supply of oxygen to my organs. I’d later learn that based on that strain on my heart, I’d been at risk of a heart attack or a stroke.
And yet we were fortunate—fortunate because I became a patient at the Cancer Day Ward at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Limerick which proved to be something of an oasis in a desert.
It was comparatively new, well lit, and airy. Though there were examining rooms for privacy, all receiving treatment did so in the same large open area. At UCSF where, by that time I’d been a patient for six years, the treatment rooms were cramped and without daylight. Best of all, not only was the Ward staffed with well-trained professionals — also was true at UCSF — but the Ward also had many volunteers who took time to chat without being intrusive and who took a serious interest in trying to make you as comfortable as possible.
Still, death sat at some of those treatment tables, and there were a number of patients in their twenties and younger. One day a beautiful young girl started sobbing as she sat alone at a table receiving chemo. It broke my heart to see her struggle with what was happening to her body. I hadn’t had time to play out my life as fully as I wanted to, but I had children and grandchildren. I’d had a long career as an attorney. I was married to the love of my life and my best friend. I’d traveled and done some living.
This young girl hadn’t even had a chance yet to dance the dance of life. She was at a stage when a primary issue for her should have been whether to wait for some boy to ask her out on a date or whether she should make the first move. Instead, she was forced to contemplate her own death. The eternal unfairness of it was overwhelming. Tears began to stream down my face. I didn’t want to add to her grief, so I turned away so she wouldn’t see me.
This could have been a dark time for me, except for the surroundings, the good care generally provided in a convivial atmosphere, and that there were a number of other patients able to slough off the deadly seriousness of it all and instead engage in wonderful discussions. It was Ireland at its best.
During those visits I had some of the best conversations and best laughs ever. Not that all my chats ended on a high, but they all ended in an Oirish way.
Once I was talking to a patient whom I’d seen there several times previously. In the midst of one of his jokes, a nurse waited till he’d finished, and then told him he’d only be admitted to the hospital if some test results revealed his condition was critical. We continued to yammer. A while later, the same nurse, then looking somber, told him that he was being admitted.
He and I knew that he’d just been handed his death warrant, but we continued telling jokes, laughing, and having a grand afternoon. When I finished for the day and while we were both still seated, I reached over and shook his hand. Before I had a chance to say anything, he put his second hand over mine, patted it, and said, “Now be a brave lad and keep up the good fight.”
“That I will, my good man; that I will. And God bless you.”
I stood, but he wouldn’t let go of my hand. Instead, he continued patting it, cocked his head to one side, looked straight into my face and with a twinkle in his eyes asked, “Now, would that be the Hebrew one?” Craic [fun] at death’s door.
“That would be any one you want.”
Karen and I slowly walked out of the ward. For the man’s sake I held myself together until we got outside. Then I broke down. Karen held me as I sobbed like a baby. I never saw him again.
Over three weeks, on seven separate occasions, I received twelve units of blood. By the time of our return trip to the States I was exhausted—from the repeat episodes, from the stress of undergoing this drama far from home, and from the beating my body had taken from the brutally low hemoglobin. Still, they’d managed to get my hemoglobin to around nine, still not good, but a hell of a lot better than five.
Back in California, my hemoglobin had dropped a bit again and my doctor gave me another two units of blood. We compared bills for my one transfusion at UCSF with the many at the hospital in Limerick and the cost in the States was roughly three times as expensive.
It took seven months for my numbers to return to what, for me, were their normal abnormal level and to this day, no one really knows what happened or why I crashed that summer in Ireland.
With all the major medical challenges I’d had during the preceding twelve months, I had time to reflect on my overall positive experience at the Cancer Day Ward in Limerick. Before we’d left Ireland, Karen and I had delivered a round of goodies for the staff and they’d posted our note of thanks from “the Yanks.”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I concluded I was more than a Yank. Hell, literally I’d become a bull-blooded Irishman! And so in October of that year I wrote to the Irish Prime Minister (the Taoiseach) to request that he formally acknowledge my new status.
Take me back to the Contents
© Harvey Gould and MPNforum.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Harvey Gould and MPNforum.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.