Getting out of bed has been so difficult lately. It’s been months since I’ve had a good night’s sleep. It seems like no matter how many blankets I use or how many layers I wear at night, I’m always freezing. Last night I woke up twice in a cold sweat. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve started keeping a towel next to my bed so I can dry off quickly before my blankets get soaked.
I had been awake for more than an hour. I glanced at my clock, 9:03 a.m. on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. I was supposed to be at work half an hour ago. My phone rang just as I was working up the strength to climb out of bed. It was probably my boss wondering where I am.
“Hi Steven, this is Doctor Ruelas, do you have a minute to talk?”
“Um, yeah, sure. I wasn’t expecting you to call so early.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Listen, I’m calling because I’ve just had a chance to go over your blood work from yesterday. Your blood counts are extremely low.”
“My blood counts? What does that mean?”
“We measured the levels of different components in your blood. You have extremely low levels of things like platelets, white blood cells, and hemoglobin. I’m waiting for my colleague to return my call to help me figure this out, but for now you need to find someone to give you a ride to the emergency room right away.”
“The emergency room?”
“I know it sounds extreme, but they can run more tests to get to the bottom of what’s going on. It could be something as simple as your diet or it could be a virus. If those are ruled out, we might have to consider something more serious like leukemia.”
That last word hung in my mind. Leukemia? That’s a type of cancer, isn’t it?
“Okay, thanks for calling Dr. Ruelas,” I said and hung up the phone.
Leukemia? It sounded crazy.
After I hung up with Dr. Ruelas, I called my dad at work. I told him that Dr. Ruelas found something out of the ordinary in my blood test and I would need a ride to the hospital for more testing. I knew that he would be worried that I needed to go to the hospital, but I didn’t want him panicking so I left out all the potential causes that Dr. Ruelas had told me.
I pulled myself out of bed and was immediately overcome by lightheadedness. Blackness crept into the edges of my vision, and I felt like I was going to faint. I stumbled into the wall and leaned there for a moment, waiting for the feeling to pass. When my vision went back to normal, I started down the hall towards the stairs. I still felt dizzy. I guess I’ve felt dizzy for months.
Why have I been such an idiot; why didn’t I go to a doctor sooner?
Clutching the banister the entire way, I made it down the stairs without incident and wobbled my way into the kitchen.
What am I going to make for breakfast? I need something simple. I should be able to make scrambled eggs right now.
The entire house was spinning around me. I could not stand without holding on to something. I put the pan on the stove and forgot to add oil before I cracked the eggs. Standing was becoming too great an effort. My knees were weak, my head felt heavy. I was beginning to feel lightheaded again. Without thinking, I abandoned the eggs and sat down on the kitchen floor.
What is happening to me? My mind wandered. I thought of the time I went hiking with my friends Sam and Lucas a few weeks ago. We were going up a gentle slope that I had walked a thousand times before. They reached the top and stopped to wait for me. How did I get so far behind? I was completely out of breath. When I took my sunglasses off to wipe the sweat from my face, I had to close my eyes. I have been so sensitive to light lately, it’s like I was blind without my sunglasses. It did not make any sense.
“Hey, what took you so long?” asked Sam.
“I don’t know man, I’ve been feeling a little off lately,” I said.
“What do you mean?” asked Lucas as he handed me a water bottle.
“I don’t know, I’ve just been feeling really tired and dizzy. Maybe I have cancer or something,” I said, laughing. What a ridiculous thought.
I snapped back to reality, back to the eggs. It felt like I was sitting on the kitchen floor for an eternity. I reached up to the countertop and pulled myself to my feet with all the strength I still had. The eggs were burnt dark brown. The yolks and whites were barely mixed together. I scraped them off the pan and onto my plate. I added salt and pepper to my sad excuse of a breakfast and ate the worst scrambled eggs of my life.
I didn’t clean up when I was done. Instead I stumbled to the couch and laid there until my dad got home to pick me up.
When I arrived at the hospital, about 45 minutes later, the first thing I did was check in at the front desk. A girl about my age, maybe a little older, greeted me from behind the counter. “What’s your reason for coming to the emergency room today?”
“My doctor said that my blood counts were low.”
“Which blood counts were low?”
“I’m not really sure what he meant. He just told me I need to go to the emergency room for more blood testing.”
“Okay, have a seat in the waiting room and wait for someone to call your name.”
After a relatively short wait, a doctor in a white coat called my name and said they were ready for me. I recognized him. He was the one who took care of my grandmother after she had her stroke a few months ago. He led me and my dad back into the emergency room.
The air here was thick with the smell of chemicals and cleaning products. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but I shudder to think what other smells they could be covering up. We walked past empty hospital rooms with open doors. I looked inside one of them. Medical instruments were coming out of the ceiling and the walls on both sides. We moved to one side of the hallway when a team of nurses came pushing someone in a hospital bed the opposite way.
The doctor led me and my dad into a small hospital room with a sliding glass door. The room was just big enough for a bed in the middle with barely enough room for people to stand on each side. Other than the countertop on the opposite side of the bed, the room was bare. Just three white walls and a sliding glass door. The doctor slid a curtain closed over the glass door for privacy, then he addressed me and my dad.
“Hi guys, my name is Doctor Johnson. I see in my notes that you’re here because of some unusual results on a routine blood test. We’re going to run some more tests here and hopefully get to the bottom of what’s going on.” And with that, he left the room.
“I’m going to call your mom,” said my dad. “She’ll probably want to be here.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I should probably let Janice know that I’m not coming into work today.”
While my dad called my mom, I took out my phone and wrote a text message to my boss, “Hi Janice. I don’t think I’m going to make it into the office today. Sorry, I know I’ve been calling in sick a lot recently. I’m in the ER right now.”
Her response came a few seconds later, “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry to hear that Steven. Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure, I’ll let you know when I find out.”
“Alright, hope you feel better soon.”
“Thanks, we’ll talk again soon.”
Over the next few hours, a near constant parade of nurses came into my room to take blood samples. My mom joined us during this time. Doctor Johnson came back several times to let us know the results of the tests they were running, “Okay we’ve ruled out your diet as the cause and we’ve also ruled out a few viruses, but we still need to run some more tests.”
“But they still haven’t ruled out leukemia,” I thought to myself as he left.
All I wanted was to go home and sleep in my own bed. Sitting in that hospital bed was emotionally draining.
It had been about five hours since I first arrived in the emergency room. I was unsuccessfully trying to sleep when a new doctor entered the room. He introduced himself to my parents and me, but at this point I was so tired and sick of being in the hospital, I don’t remember the doctor’s name.
“Hello, I am the oncology supervisor here at Community Memorial Hospital. I’m here because after reviewing your blood samples, it appears that you have leukemia. Now, there are several types of leukemia, but we’re going to have to get you to a specialist to figure that out.” He took out his laptop to show us examples of what different types of leukemia look like under a microscope. “As you can see here…”
I stopped listening. I was in shock. Cancer? How could this be possible? I’m only 23. How long am I going to be in treatment? How much pain am I going to experience? They say the side effects of chemotherapy are awful. Am I going to need chemo? Am I going to have to start wearing beanies? How life threatening is leukemia? Will I survive at all?
Then I was hit by another emotion. Relief. I knew I’d been sick for a long time, but at some level, I’d been too afraid to admit it to myself. Now I didn’t have any more excuses to live in denial. I could finally start to get better. I was not sure if I fully understood it at the time, but my life would never be the same after that day. Things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got any better. The next few years of my life were about to turn into a plate of badly scrambled eggs.