When my doctor stopped smiling

Vaishnavi Venkatesh, Chennai 2009

My daughter Shreya was around a year old when I started losing weight. I presumed that it was due to excessive breastfeeding and thought of weaning her off it. She detested it and the thought did not get past a day. I started taking iron supplements and let things be as they were. She continued to thrive but I assuredly did not. People around me began telling me how terrible I looked. I had to try a lot harder to do simple things like walk to the terrace and carry Shreya back from the beach (not till home of course, till the car!) When I started getting mind-numbing headaches, I realized that something was wrong. One Sunday, when the mother of all headaches visited me, I cracked and called the doctor. Dr. J.R. Subramaniam-an amazing doctor and also my husband’s mentor. He put me on a battery of tests. My hemoglobin was very low and he wanted an endoscopy done. Dr. Mani Veeraraghavan was my endoscopist. He is amazing at his work, focused and performs painless procedures. You cannot make out much from his bedside manner. He is consistently grim. He was also grim when he asked me to call my parents. We were puzzled by his news- what did it mean, a large lesion? In the upper part of the stomach? We blinked at him and spent our day in a fog of puzzlement. My husband being a doctor was less fortunate, for he knew. We went back to Dr. J.R.S with the report. When Dr. J.R.S looked grim, I stopped smiling. Uh-oh, no smile, now that was really serious, I said to myself. We were referred to his friend and surgical oncologist Dr. Hemanth Raj at Apollo Specialty. He drew diagrams and showed me where he would cut and smiled sweetly at me. I grinned back and decided that these were good hands to put one’s internal organs in.

Surgery was in five days.

The next five days were a haze. I stayed in my mum’s house and went for tests and scans. When at home, friends and relatives kept dropping in asking how they could be of help. My brother came and freaked out. He kept chewing his nails. (I wanted to say, Hello! Who’s getting surgery done here? Tell me HOW DOES CHEWING YOUR NAILS HELP? )  I think I unnerved everyone by being cheerful. Once in a while my husband would tell me… ‘You don’t understand the gravity of the situation.’ Actually I have found that it’s best not to realize the seriousness of any situation. I believe that you must have faith. Any worry is an indication that your faith is not strong enough. I talked to my daughter about surgery (thankfully the nightmare of weaning was a few weeks past us and we could have conversations without her bawling out aloud). She seemed reconciled to sleeping with her grandparents for a while. My parents, husband and relatives worked out a roster of child and hospital care among themselves. Shreya used to come every day to see me at the hospital. The first day after my surgery, she didn’t want to come too close, the pipes and tubes scared her. One by one the tubes started coming off and she started liking the hospital. The nurses doted on her and we would wander the corridors and ride the lifts. At last, 10 days after the surgery, they let me go home. I was so happy. Our full support group was present. I had to negotiate everything. Yes I could walk down the ramp; yes I could sit on the swing and yes I could take my plate to the sink. After my first surgery, I was not prescribed any medication. I learned to work around a smaller stomach. I learned to avoid foods that set off horrific stomach pains. Life was fun. Except for yearly CTs and endoscopies, things were almost normal. My husband and I wondered whether we should plan for another baby.

God however had other plans.

In 2008, nearly 5 years after my first surgery, I had put off going to see Dr. Hemanth Raj for almost 4 months because I felt so normal. My CT begged to differ. Lesions had formed again. In my liver, and in the stomach. But small ones- really did I have to go in for surgery again? By this time three people in the family had died of cancer. Two of my mother in law’s sisters and my father’s sister. Over two years I watched my father’s sister, my athai, morph from a healthy and active old person to a bedridden bag of bones. She lost her organs one by one to disease and surgery. I wondered whether surgery was ever a solution to cancer. Well I was about to find out. My surgery was scheduled during my daughter’s mid term holidays. We went through the whole rigmarole again. I wondered, if this were the slippery end of the slope? Am I going the way of my athai? Aaaaah….  I stopped browsing medical sites and resolutely tuned in to the radio and started reading stories during my net time. Well, surgery happened again. My trusty support group pitched in again. My parents somehow managed child, dog and hospital care. (Yes we also had a dog this time) I had a break of two months. My parents took a house near mine and I lived a cosseted life with them. I read stories and drew and we all went to the beach every evening. A month after surgery I started taking Glivec. The side effects were minimal. I had a rash and occasional dizziness; my skin became lighter over time. In the morning I had water retention. I went recently for my first CT post surgery and everything seems normal. No lesions, no spread- my doctor says that I am responding well to medication. With Glivec, maybe I could be stable and incident free for a long time.

Every day is a gift; that is why it is called ‘The present.’
At quiet times when I am traveling, I wonder, how my life is different now after GIST and Glivec?
I am more assertive, (never put off work for another day…).
I have no hassles telling people, “I am tired and I need some consideration, now”,
I am more forgiving and tolerant with Shreya, I appreciate her more.
I try to treat people better than things. The jumping child is more important than the sofa…, the happy child is better than the perfectly finished homework.
I try to keep my priorities in order. Being happy in a smaller house is better than having loan obligations in a larger one.
Don’t shift the blame, change the situation.

 I keep thanking God, for my amazing doctors – who consistently treat me well, for my amazing family – who support me and for my daughter and dog who cheer me up. One thing I discovered is that one should never disregard the messages that one’s body is giving. Don’t blow it out of proportion, but pain beyond a certain threshold is significant. Ignoring it is not being brave, but stupid. Closing one’s eyes does not make the problem go away; it just lets the problem grow really big. Disease does not happen overnight- if you catch the signs early, you could catch it while it is still a small one… Like they say a stitch in time saves nine. Actually they use staples now. Ha Ha.