It was 7:30am on a Wednesday morning and I was getting ready for my morning commute when I received the iMessage on my phone. One of our close friends (J) was suffering for over a week with the flu. She had been feeling feverish and very tired and it wasn’t getting any better. Things had progressively gotten worse and she had developed purple dots over most of her body, which is never a good sign, so she had decided to head to the Emergency Room the night before. I had been waiting for an update from her and although the message was simple, it was over the top impactful.
“Good morning V. I have some news but I don’t want you to worry.”, she wrote.
“Good morning J – What do you mean??”, I replied, heart starting to race.
“I have Leukemia. But it will be OK.”, she replied in a seemingly calm tone.
“What? What do you mean?”, I replied back, confused, concerned and shocked.
“It’s OK. I’ll be OK.”
My stomach fell to the ground. Tears filled my eyes immediately as my head raced. How could she say she will be oK? What stage is it? What type of leukemia? What will happen now? What’s the treatment? Clearly, she was more relaxed than I was. We proceeded to message back and forth, and perhaps I was being overly inquisitive, but she kept putting my mind at ease. Somehow, this was all wrong, I was supposed to be helping her relax, but I was the one who was a mess!
J lived over 2600km away but other than it being a slight annoyance, it wasn’t a big deal since we talked pretty much every day and frequently had FaceTime sessions. Immediately, the distance became a major issue. A feeling of helplessness flooded my psyche.
That day, she was transported to a hospital 2 hours away from her home for further assessments, testing and to start her treatment. This made logistics quite difficult for her. Luckily there was another friend who could make the trip back and forth to bring her the things she needed.
When I broke the news to the family, G and the kids were quite moved and upset by it. We were expecting out of town relatives that week and as the large group arrived, we hosted them while constantly monitoring the situation with J. The doctors decided to start administering chemotherapy and she was sounding weaker as every day passed.
J’s family had moved overseas and she was in the middle of packing for her move back as well. With this latest turn of events, some family members scrambled to fly back to provide her some support. In the meantime she was alone and it was killing me to see her going through this by herself. There was no time to lose I thought, we needed to make the trip to see her. As we said our goodbyes to the last visiting relative, we had a family meeting at the kitchen table and made a last minute decision, as we typically do, to head south to see how we could help. We made the necessary arrangements with work, school, friends, and family and packed for our trip.
As time passed, her texts had been getting less frequent and very short, which was unlike our typical conversations, so I knew she was losing steam. Our trip went well and the moment we arrived, we chartered a course to the hospital, where after a few moments of reconnaissance work, we found the Oncology department and then located her room. As we approached, I noticed her door was open. I took a deep breath and peered inside. I saw her laying in the bed, looking tired and weak. She looked at me and smiled, almost in disbelief that she was looking at me. I breathed a sigh of relief that we were finally there. She knew we were traveling but wasn’t sure when we would arrive. I fought hard to hold back my tears. I needed to show strength for her, I thought. There was a sign on the door, advising to wear a mask, which I did before entering. It was amazing to finally be only a few feet apart instead of the thousands of kilometers of separation just a day before. I walked over to her, navigating through the intravenous drip lines and wires, to give her a hug.
The last time I had seen J was a few months prior when we had spent several days together in Orlando. I remember with fond memories, that time filled with shopping, sightseeing, and non-stop smiles. This time, things were very different. I could see she was both in pain and tired. It would have been fully acceptable for her to be both afraid and angry at the situation, but she did not show signs of either emotion. This showed a level of mental strength that I admired.
Standing in the room with her, I didn’t know what to say or do, which says a lot considering I talk a lot. The rest of my family came in, just in time to save me, so they could also say hello. I wasn’t sure how the kids would react. They had no other firsthand experience with anyone who had cancer and had been curiously asking about her since they heard the news.
“Is J going to be OK?”
“How can we fix it?”
“So how do you get cancer?”
“How can you prevent it?”
“How…what…when…how…” – The questions went on.
This was definitely a growth opportunity for them – to deal with what life sometimes dishes out to us. What I realized, was that I am immensely blessed with my kids. When both my kids showed such a high level of engagement in trying to find out how they could help, it made me so incredibly proud of them.
In the week that followed, J fell slowly into a state of disillusionment. She was not eating, getting weaker and to make things worse, some medications that she was being given had some really bad adverse reactions…like really odd reactions. I realized things weren’t right when she was trying to explain how her mind hacked into the hospital computer system and her glasses were being used to communicate with spies overseas. She was jittery and paranoid. I was truly saddened to see this and I was angry that this was happening to her. I attempted to comfort her and told her things would be fine and I was here for her. Once the medical staff stopped administering the drug, the evil side-effects were gone over the following 48 hours.
The goal was to get her overseas to continue her treatment, so once she had stabilized, an air-ambulance was set up to fly her to the hospital near her hometown. On the day she was slated to be transported, we head to the hospital to say our bittersweet goodbyes. I was happy she was heading home, but I wasn’t sure when I would see her again. There were still so many unknowns lingering. As the air-ambulance crew got her ready for her cross-Atlantic trip, we all watched on as alternating emotional waves of sadness and relief could be felt. Deep down, I knew she would be OK (she is a strong cookie), but the formality of the whole process brought sterility and a cold realization of life’s fragility. We all gave her huge hugs and waved our goodbyes as she was whisked away to the waiting airplane.
We had been at the hospital most of the day and really hadn’t eaten anything, so we needed to eat something. It was around 10 pm and we all needed some comfort food; Five Guys Burgers and Fries was a unanimous choice. As we ate our burgers, we reflected on the events of the previous week.
My son explained, “I feel so good that we were able to be here for J. It really makes me feel good about that.”
“I agree, it is really important to be able to help out a friend who needs it, even if it’s not easy.”, my daughter added.
I couldn’t have agreed more.
It has now been over a month and I am happy to report that J is doing great. She just finished her second round of Chemotherapy and they have found a bone marrow donor. If all goes well, she should be getting her bone marrow transplant in the next month or so. All great news!! As always, she has maintained a positive outlook and her strength and attitude has been admirable.
Although I thought I would be the one going to help a friend in need, I feel that she has helped me so much more. I have developed an appreciation of life and how positivity and finding inner strength is possible during the toughest times in life and most importantly, how very fortunate I am to have such a great friend!
Hugs and Love,