THE DIAGNOSIS: Terry Finch

His small office is nondescript and one of many poky rooms that form the vampire’s nest of a city pathology laboratory and blood transfusion centre. The room contains the doctor’s desk, neat and uncluttered, completely devoid of anything that would give me a clue about who he is and who and what he loves. A computer is perched on the left hand side, its screen on an angle, but not visible to me – not now anyway. 

The doctor sits on a brown leather swivel chair. He is a man of small build, wearing a long sleeved, open-necked shirt and dark trousers. There’s no hint of aftershave or deodorant. 

I sit in one of two black chairs – we are separated by the desk. We’re both safe. I am alone with him and in my growing ignorant discomfort I glance discreetly around and my eyes fix on the large picture on the side wall, to the left of the window. It is modern and colourless – some drab background, perhaps light green or grey and a quote from John Lennon. “Oh, a Beatles fan,” I think. 

The doctor shuffles papers on his desk, repositions himself in his chair, readjusts his glasses.  

“Emma,” he begins, “I have some results here from your recent blood tests.”  

I feel my heartbeat quicken and can almost hear it thumping as if my heart is trying to escape, up my throat and out of my mouth. 

My palms begin to sweat and I can feel a tightness around my temples.

But I am silent and remain composed. I swallow and concentrate on my breathing, trying to keep it steady and deep.

“There’s a problem with your white blood cells so we ran a number of tests as elevated white blood cells can indicate one of a number of things. The good news is that what you have – a type of leukaemia – is very treatable in this day and age. If you’re going to get anything this is the one to get. It’s Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML).” I hear the word ‘leukaemia’ and think to myself with my usual sarcasm, “So I’ve hit the cancer jackpot – great! I suppose I should be grateful it’s the best one to get. Hip, hip hooray.”  

I want to lean over and slap the doctor’s face. 

“How dare he deliver such news like that,” I think. “He might be a smart man and an excellent doctor, but he’s got a lousy bedside manner.” 

I remain composed and expressionless but I am frightened, angry and confused. In that split second I muster all that is in me to remain focused on his explanation of CML, my prognosis and treatment options. It’s a struggle, but I manage to hear some words about bone marrow, immature red cells, Philadelphia chromosome, gene mutation, chromosome 9 and 22, BCR ABL, blood tests, transplants . . .  

He drones on and it feels like someone has a meat mallet to my head, while someone else is speaking a harsh and guttural foreign language. I remain silent, my eyes on the doctor. Inside, I am ranting and raving: “Why don’t you shut up – coz I don’t give a rat’s arse about all of that. I just want to know how long I will live. Will I see my children married? Will I live long enough to enjoy grandchildren?”

The doctor pushes back his chair, my cue to move, but he continues: “We’ll do a bone marrow biopsy to establish a baseline for our reporting to the health department. The medication is government funded and is available to you as long as it keeps your levels below one.” 

I follow him into another small room, a lamb to the slaughterhouse: silent, obedient, trusting. In the middle there is a stainless steel bed with crisp white sheets. There’s a set of scales near the bed and on the other side, against the wall, are a number of stainless steel trolleys with scary medical instruments I choose to ignore. I disrobe and climb onto the bed. The temperature is cool, but I am freezing. I pull up the cotton sheet, stiff and hard on my skin. I feel exposed. Vulnerable. Trapped. 

And then a nurse arrives. 

“Hello, Emma, I’m Mary  and I’m going to be with you while Doctor does the biopsy and I’ll sit with you until you’ve had a cup of tea and are ready to go home.” She comes over to me, close to my head, and takes my hand in hers, meticulously manicured, looks me in the eye and smiles. Her voice and touch are reassuring, caring, soft and gentle.

The doctor is quiet, busy with his instruments, before he comes over to me: “Emma, I need you to roll over on to your left side, please. You’ll feel the cool of the antiseptic, there will be a sensation of pulling and of something being sucked from inside. It will be short and sharp, but it’s important you remain still.” 

A tear escapes – but not unnoticed. Mary squeezes my hand and her wordless touch rescues me from my thoughts of abandonment. 

“Emma, are you ready?” the doctor says.  

“Yes.” I answer quietly but with determination. My eyes closed, I try to coach myself into a relaxed state, steadying my breathing by saying to myself “In … out … in … out …” then begin my mantra: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. The Lord is My shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” 

There is an explosion inside me somewhere – I can’t locate whether it’s in my head or where the doctor has his big needle in the top of my right buttock, near my hip bone. A single scream escapes, tears trickle down my face. 

“All done,” announces the doctor in his detached, business-type manner, as he flicks off his yellow latex gloves.  

“You did really well,” says Mary. “It’s all finished”.

© Terry Finch 2021

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