The following short story was published in Visible Ink Anthology 2017, my 5th publication of short stories.
One of my favorite books (and movies) is “The Five People You Meet In Heaven,” by author Mitch Albom. As inspirational a story as it is, my thoughts are, “why wait until getting to heaven to meet those who have influenced my life.”
I have survived Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for more than 26 years. But it was only in 2008, that I learned that I had developed late effects from the treatments that had saved my life. There are people that have come into my life, total strangers, who have made my survival possible, both physically and emotionally.
In 1997, I “met” Tammy on a Hodgkin’s internet listserve. My story is limited to 800 words. All the late side effects she has had to deal with alone would take 800 words. Many of those issues resulted in several near death incidents, either because her cure had betrayed her, or doctors, uneducated in late effects, had no idea how to treat her. Nearly twenty years later, we are still friends, she has proudly seen her children grow and get married, and has several grandchildren. Were it not for her will, she would never had this experience.
In 2008, just as there was no real protocol of follow up for cancer survivors back when I was treated, nor were there many doctors who knew how to diagnose and treat patients with these late effects. Linda was another listserve member who tried to get me to participate in a “long term survivor” support list, but at that time, I felt I did not belong, because people on that list, had many serious issues about their post care. Up until 2008, I was healthy. But following my heart surgery, caused by radiation therapy damage, it was clear that I was going to need support that had knowledge in late term side effects. There were not many facilities that had this skill. I lived near Philadelphia at the time, but Linda encouraged me with a phrase that has stuck with me forever, “Don’t let economics determine your care.” In other words, if I had to travel to get the care I needed, it would make the difference.
Which in the Fall of 2008, I would be welcomed into the Survivorship program at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I was introduced to Dr. Oeffinger, who has an understated title of “primary care physician,” when clearly to those in his care are more than aware that the title does not do him justice. With his studies of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and late effects from treatments spanning decades, Dr. Oeffinger ran all the tests necessary to see how my body had been affected over the years, and helped to assemble a great team of doctors, nurses, therapists, and techs that would not only help me manage my health issues, but Dr. Oeffinger made a statement to me that has stuck with me forever, as I do everything I can to work with him on this goal, “I cannot reverse what is happening to you, but I can help you slow it down. More importantly, I can help you see your daughters grow. You will see the time of being a grandfather.” My health and my emotions had been spinning out of control up until that moment.
In recent years, I met Kristi. Not just was she a teenager when she dealt with Hodgkin’s, not only was she dealing with late effects, but she was faced with a life-threatening challenge that would have been enough for even a healthy individual to overcome. With life-threatening injuries from a car accident, she came back stronger than ever both physically and spiritually, driven by the love and support of her family.
And finally, the last person is actually a group of people, and since I am not done meeting them, it will be a long time before I am ready to get to heaven. Any opportunity that I get, I reach out to meet any number of fellow cancer survivors. Each and every story, unique as their cancer journey was to them, tells an inspirational tale of perseverance, hope, triumph. In actuality, it is our unquestioned support for each other, that we keep things in perspective while not discounting the severity of our own issues. Everything we are going through is very real to each and every one of us, and no one’s pain is any less real than another.
With Dr. Oeffinger’s help, it is going to be awhile before I get to heaven. I have a lot more people to meet.
Authors’s note – Following my composition of this story, a friend, fellow cancer survivor, and author of Visible Ink, passed away. I am dedicating this story, to Davina Klatsky, one of the many people I have met and will some day meet in Heaven.