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From mortal illness to miraculous recovery, a doctor's moving account of his own experience as a patient
At forty-two, Geoffrey Kurland, a pediatric pulmonologist specializing in such deadly diseases as cystic fibrosis, was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a rare cancer with a statistically low survival rate. A remarkably fit man in training for 100-mile "extreme" races whose job is equally high performance, he is forced to confront the challenge of his own mortality. He ...
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From mortal illness to miraculous recovery, a doctor's moving account of his own experience as a patient
At forty-two, Geoffrey Kurland, a pediatric pulmonologist specializing in such deadly diseases as cystic fibrosis, was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a rare cancer with a statistically low survival rate. A remarkably fit man in training for 100-mile "extreme" races whose job is equally high performance, he is forced to confront the challenge of his own mortality. He tries to cope by turning inward in a desperate search for ever-elusive answers. As the doctor becomes a patient and lives through the terror and pain that he had until then only observed at a remove in his young patients, he learns invaluable life lessons that will ultimately make him a better doctor.
This is Kurland's memoir of his diagnosis, treatment, and return to health and "normal" life-an unforgettable testament to the resilence of the human spirit.
I awake to the night as out of a bad dream, suddenly aware of the darkened room around me. The soft lights in their louvered recesses along the baseboard filter a reluctant glow into the darkness, allowing me to see the bare wall beyond the bed, the blank ceiling above me. I can hear, from behind the partially pulled curtain between us, the stuttered snoring of my elderly roommate. I try to raise my left arm and feel the pull of the adhesive tape, which secures my intravenous line. The door to the small bathroom on my right sways in the half-light, and I feel myself quietly weakening as I will myself into sleep. But there will be no sleep, at least not now. The jolt that has ripped me from sleep is my fever, now rocketing once more to the upper reaches of the thermometer, the sweat building beneath my skin, my muscles about to start the shivering that has been the focal point of my nights now for more than two weeks. With my free hand I reach for the cord and press the small button to summon the nurse. Lying back, I mentally prepare myself for what I know will happen in the next several minutes. As if to mock my preparation, my teeth begin to chatter, now in small spurts, then withinmoments, in full throttle, threatening to break my jaw, gnash through my own tongue, while my arms, shoulders, legs all shake with a false cold, now uncontrollable even with the meager remnants of a strength that has ebbed from me on a daily basis, perhaps never to return. My roommate, oblivious to my trembling horizontal dance, sleeps deep within his own cancer-driven nightmare. I close my eyes, trying to stop the fever, the chills, the river of sweat that now pours off me, soaking into the bedsheets. The light in the room fades.
"Dr. Kurland ..."
I look up at the nurse, dressed cleanly and efficiently. Her face is fragile, worried, her eyes somber. She'd seen me several hours ago, near midnight, as she started her shift. Back then, she'd told me to try to have a better night than the previous dozen or more. Her look now reflects our combined disappointment.
"It looks like you're having another chill ... put this under your tongue." She hands me the electronic thermometer. I hold the palm-sized box with its digital display and put the plastic-sheathed probe into my mouth, holding my jaw as still as possible to avoid biting the thing. I curl down into a ball, pulling the sheets around me and watch the light on the dial spin madly, as the reading screams past the normal 37 degrees Celsius before slowing and finally stopping well above 40, which is 104 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty warm for a baby, but downright hot for a forty-two year old. I take the plastic protector off the thermometer tip, holding it as if it were some prize I've won (highest temperature on the ward tonight?), and hand the rest of the device back to the nurse. She gives me some medication and a glass of water, and I blandly take the tablets.
For an unknown reason (the fever? delirium?) I brighten: "Hey," to the nurse, "do you know the difference between oral and rectal thermometers?"
She looks blankly back at me. "Uh ... I don't know, doctor. What's the difference?"
"The taste," I cackle as she rolls her eyes upward.
I am suddenly very tired from shaking, but the intermittent waves of unwanted and undirected movement continue to pass through me. "Let's let that work," she says. "If this is like other nights, you should feel better in a half hour or so. At least they stopped ordering blood cultures every time you spiked." She talks familiarly with me, for she knows I understand that spike means the sudden burst of fever which, when plotted on a daily temperature sheet, gives it the look of a mountain arising from the topographic plateau of 98.6 at which we all normally live.
I lie back on the bed, feeling the medicine take hold, slowing my shivering, bringing me back to euthermy. I feel as though I've run ten miles on a humid day in June, which, in fact, it is: June of 1988. But there is to be no running for me, at least not now, not tonight, just as there has not been any for the last two weeks or more. Perhaps, I tell myself, I'll run again, later, when I'm better. Or perhaps, I tell myself, I'm not going to get better; perhaps I'm going to die from this fever that drains my body and soul, this fever that has suddenly appeared in the midst of my treatment. The soaked sheets gather me into their grip as if foretelling a shroud.
The nurse sees me in the wet white linen as she bustles quietly into the room with an armful of clean and dry sheets. "Now, if we're feeling better, perhaps we should change the sheets." Why, I wonder to myself, do nurses, and doctors for that matter, use the pronoun we so much? My enviable roommate still snores in his bed only a few feet from mine.
I pull myself out of bed and uneasily stand up. I try to help as my bed is stripped, but I am so weak I can barely lift the pillow.
"Gee, this stuff is kinda wet," the nurse says.
"Kinda is an understatement. Maybe I could wring them out for you. Now I finally know what patients mean when they say they have night sweats and fevers." I hobble the two feet into the bathroom, close the door, and change into dry pajamas, an act that itself takes several minutes because I have to stop after each stage of undressing and dressing just to rest. I shuffle back out and watch the final stages of new sheet placement as I suddenly began to feel better, drier, more awake. I know it's only temporary. Like all the previous nights in the hospital, my shivering has stopped almost as fast as it started; I can feel my temperature, so high a few minutes ago, drifting toward normal. I hope that I will be allowed to stay with the rest of humanity at 98.6; but, as I'd learned on many other nights, uncertainty is my constant companion.
The bed is ready for my cooler body, and I lie down slowly, carefully, as if afraid I might somehow shatter in the movement. I look back up at the nurse, then over at the pile of sheets and pajamas, looking like a misplaced snowbank against the far wall. The night is more than half over, and I just want my illness to end. I want to have something else to think about, talk about.
"How did the Pirates do tonight?" I'd moved to Pittsburgh less than four months before, yet here I am caught up in the team, its ups and downs, its young players all in such good health.
"I heard they lost. The Reds scored twice in the bottom of the eighth."
"Oh well ... there's always tomorrow." For some, I think. Maybe I'm one of them. No, I'm probably not one of them. For me, there are only a few tomorrows left, I'm somehow sure.
"How long have you been in here, Dr. Kurland?" The nurse startles me back to the reality of the room, the hospital, the night.
"I don't know ... two weeks? ... two and a half weeks? ... it's all been one long night, make that one long nightmare, for me."
"And they still don't know why you're having fevers? Haven't they done a lot of tests?" I laugh the cynical, half-hearted laugh of the condemned man told one last joke on his way to the gallows.
"No ... they don't know ... and it's not for lack of trying to find out. I mean, they've probably taken a quart of blood, X-rayed me to where I'll probably start glowing in the dark pretty soon, done enough nuclear scans for some third world countries to consider competitive bidding for my remains ... all sorts of stuff ..." I drop my voice a notch. "Maybe they'll find out when I ... I don't know ..."
I'm about to say when I die. For I am convinced that I am slowly wasting away, sweating and burning away my life, and that this, the summer of 1988, will be my last. Every day, Dr. Ellis, my hematologist, comes in with a cheery greeting, which I try, but fail, to match.
"Geoff, your blood counts look great. I'm not sure why you're still having fevers, but I'm convinced it's not your leukemia. Nothing's really turned up, but we'll keep looking. It must be an infection ... but ..."
"Where?" I finish his sentence. "Or what?" I offer.
He stands in silent agreement with me for a moment. "I talked to Dr. Habermann again."
"At Mayo?" Habermann is the hematologist who'd helped diagnose my disease. "He got any new ideas?"
"He's still worried about atypical TB ... but we can't seem to find it."
Atypical TB is all too familiar to a specialist in lung diseases, even if he's a specialist in pediatric lung diseases like me. Rather than a single type of germ, atypical TB is actually a collection of microorganisms related, but not identical, to what we call tuberculosis. Atypical TB can cause severe illness in those susceptible to it, but few have been susceptible until recently, when AIDS provided a population of patients unable to fend off the normally docile atypical TB, allowing it to wreak havoc on the defenseless bodies of its victims. What's worse, atypical TB is, if anything, less treatable than tuberculosis.
Ellis sees my look; he knows that I can put two and two together. "Your HIV test was negative ... you don't have AIDS. But your immunity has been affected by the leukemia and by the chemo. That's why we held the drug. Well, we'll keep looking. I hope you have a better night."
"So do I."
But here it is, another one of those not-better nights, another after-midnight-sweat-and-fever show, melting my flesh. The bed now is crisp, cool, and I am looking at the ceiling as the nurse carries the old sheets from the room and turns down the lights. As the room darkens I feel for the cord with the call button, just to make sure it's there. I hear again the rhythmic snoring next to my bed. Disjointed and minute parts of the previous day come wandering into my consciousness: a brief visit from a coworker, and a call from Karin, her worried and loving voice nearly cracking over the line from Sacramento as I lied and told her I would be fine, telling her she should stay there instead of coming out to be with me, to see me. I don't want anyone to see me, really. The thought of being seen in my sad sick state: my weight down several pounds, my face lined as never before, the unpredictability of my febrile shakes are all too difficult to take and nearly unthinkable to have witnessed. No, I tell myself, it's better for me to hide in my hospital bed and hope I either get back to my previous "health" in the midst of leukemia or just continue to waste away until death takes me. I drift down now into the bed, into the sleep that I so desperately wish for, into the dream that I want this whole thing to be. I can feel my past rush up to meet me, to tell me that this nightmare is in fact real, even though it began with a single quick and remarkably innocent X ray only fifteen months before, in March of 1987. I can remember it as well as if it were occurring on this very evening, another night of sweated, shivered agony in which I find myself trapped, a prisoner of my own illness.
I enter the large room that holds the massive X-ray equipment and remove the long, white coat containing my two stethoscopes, symbols of my physicianship. I strip off my shirt and tie and stand, far more than half-naked in my own mind, before the film holder in the room. The technician has raised the holder so that the top is just at the level of my upwardly thrust jaw.
"Put your chest against this," she says, indicating the box holding the film. The X rays will enter me from behind, go through my chest, and hit the film contained within the holder. She hides herself behind a shielded screen within arm's reach of the control panel.
"Take a breath ... now let it out." I do as I am told. "Take another ... hold it." I hear the sound of a soft bell as the X ray is taken. I am turned sideways, with my arms out of the way of the X-ray beam, repeating the process for a side view. The technician takes the film cassettes into the darkroom to process them.
I hurriedly put my clothes back on, working my way back into my white coat while I wait the ninety seconds the processing takes. I still have a lot to do: lectures to prepare for a conference in a few days, rounds to make, residents to teach. And now this X ray, taking up more of my precious time. I'd already put off having the X ray taken for several weeks because I had too many patients in the clinic or on the ward, lectures to give, rounds to make. But here I am at last, hoping the X ray will reveal the cause of the recurrent sharp pain in my left chest. Maybe, I tell myself, it'll also explain that nagging cold and cough I had a few months ago. Perhaps I really had broken a rib when I coughed during one of my long training runs. As a matter of fact, I convince myself that a fractured rib would fully explain the pain, especially after the weeks of aspirin didn't do anything except make me bleed excessively every time I cut myself shaving. The bleeding, I tell myself, was only because of the aspirin, which makes it harder for the blood to clot. None of this-the pain, the cough, the cold, the bleeding-none of it had completely stopped my running. But I know something is wrong, and that something is slowing me down.
Dave, the radiology resident, had squinted sidelong at me in the near darkness of the processing room when I told him of the pain and asked for the X ray of my chest. But his brow furrowed, his gaze narrowed, and his jaw dropped when I told him that the pain had been sufficient to start to interfere with my running. Just as everyone at the medical center knows me as Dr. K., a nickname I've had since my own internship, I am equally marked as the physician who runs the year round, at night after work, carrying his beeper, in any weather. I am an acknowledged nut, running in the rain, singing on rounds, trading bad jokes with my patients, residents, and students.
Not only am I somewhat crazy, I'm tough, I keep reminding myself. It takes more than just a little pain to stop my running. Only four weeks ago, despite the pain in my chest, I did a fifty-mile run and qualified for my ultimate goal, my personal Holy Grail: the Western States Endurance Run. All the thousands of miles I've run since I first started running as a teenager have been, unbeknownst to me, the physical and mental training for that one-hundred-mile run over the Sierra Nevada mountains, on trails over peaks, into canyons, and across the icy American River. Now, after all those years, I am at last ready to face the challenge that will test my physical limits, perhaps allowing me to see a hidden part of myself. Nothing, not even the pain in my ribs or the fatigue in my legs, would be able to stop me from doing that run, I tell myself. Nothing.
Dave and I wait for the films to appear. A beeper goes off; as usual, it's mine. I pick up a nearby phone and tell the resident that I'll be up on the pediatric ward in just a few minutes, and we can see and discuss my patient together. The X-ray area is dark and quiet, and I savor the near silence, the hum of equipment, and the smell of developer fluid.
"Dr. K.," Dave revives me from my reverie, "your film is coming out of the processor. Want to take a look?"
He pulls the black pieces of film from the large, purring box. They are dark wings flapping in his hands as we cross to a view box up on the wall. Dave puts them up against the fluorescent light as we both peer at the X rays.
He is silent. I swallow hard and feel my throat suddenly become dry; my breath chokes in small bursts.
"Are you sure those are my films?"
"Donna, are these here Dr. K.'s X rays?" Dave asks hopefully.
"Only ones in there" is the reply from around the corner. They are mine and mine alone, the shadows before me flying out from the view box into my eyes, which stare with disbelief. I take a step back, then one forward, as if to erase what I see by refocusing the view. Then I look away, snatch a breath of air, and turn to Dave.
"Well, well, isn't this interesting."
"No," he says, "I don't think so."
My rib is fine. In fact, there's nothing wrong with that side of my chest, the area of the pain I've been having. But there, right there in the upper central part of my chest, is a large, fist-sized blotch of white, a mass, a something. It pushes my windpipe far to the right, kinking it. My spine, as if in religious devotion, genuflects with a soft curve pointing to my left, as if it were bowing toward the white mass filling the upper part of my chest.
Excerpted from My Own Medicine by Geoffrey Kurland Copyright © 2002 by Geoffrey Kurland
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.