Saturday, November 26, 2011

On Hubris and Blood Cells

At two in the morning Friday, Soviet secret agents broke into my bedroom, having mistaken me for Leon Trotsky, and sank an ice ax into the side of my face. Naturally this rudeness woke me right up. I staggered out to the kitchen and, while rummaging through the cupboards for Vicodin, I ran my hand over my cheek. Not finding an ice ax embedded there, I realized I must find an alternate explanation for my pain.

The pain turned out to be an infection, possibly self-induced through overzealous flossing. They told me when I got chemotherapy to floss very gently, if at all. But I thought that advice was directed at, you know, sick people. A lifelong flosser, I assumed my gums were tough enough to withstand ordinary dental hygiene. Chemo kills the cells in the mouth and makes it tender and vulnerable, so it is likely that, while flossing Thanksgiving dinner out from between my bicuspids, I nicked my gums a little and introduced bacteria into my bloodstream. Now, chemo also clobbers the white blood cells, so a little bacteria can become a big problem. This probably is what happened to me, due to my flossing hubris. Like the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, I fell because of my own pride. Come to think of it, isn't there an overzealously flossing king in a minor play of Aeschylus?

I spent most of Friday in a stupor of pain and pain meds, and then at some point realized I was probably running a fever. When you're running a fever you have to call the oncology nurse, and the oncology nurse got right to the point: You have to go to the E.R., she said. So off we went, and they gave me a blue face mask that accessorized very nicely with my blue pajamas, and they had me wait. Visits to the E.R. are very long and consist almost entirely of waiting, interrupted by needle pokes.

After about six hours of waiting and poking they ascertained that I had neutropenia. Neutropenia sounds like a kind of invasive species, a hairy swamp rat introduced in the nineteenth century for its fur which is now, in the absence of natural predators, wreaking havoc on Pacific Northwest wetlands. But that's not the case at all. Neutropenia is the condition of being very low on white blood cells. Turns out I was severely neutropenic, and so after numerous additional pokes I was admitted to the hospital and then, because my blood pressure was dramatically low, to the I.C.U., where I spent the day. I've been allowed to come back down to the regular hospital for my second night, which is where I am now, but I won't get to go home until those white blood cells increase their numbers by a factor of 10. Go, little blood cells, go.


  1. I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. So, I laughed first at this very funny piece...and then I felt like crying...but was simply sad that you are having to go through all this.
    Sending you love and light.

  2. Looks like I have joined you in mid journey, Jan. My wife is an onc nurse at Mayo, recognized your symptoms immediately and proceded to give me a mini chemo lecture at breakfast. She speaks most fondly of her patients with grace and humor like yours. Hang in there.

  3. Next time secret agents burst into your bedroom, just flash those pearly-whites in their direction. The gleam will drop them in their tracks. Good that you've prepared them so well! Hope you're getting out of there soon...

  4. Once again, your sense of humor amazes me . . . however, next time a little tartar build-up might be preferable to the ER/ICU/hospital . . . Hang in there Jan! Thinking of you!


  5. Your humor is what will get you through this is also what is teaching us a very valuable lesson...