Report From the Chemo Infusion Room

Report From the Chemo Infusion Room
AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Nick de la Torre
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I write you from the infusion room at a community hospital. I'm here not as a patient but as a driver and companion of an elderly friend being treated for cancer. Right now, he's attached to a chemo bag and snoozing. Let me share some observations.

First off, this is not the depressing scene many imagine it to be. Some patients here won't last long, but others will live many years. Medical advances have turned many cancers into merely chronic illnesses that need to be watched and treated when they flare.

The patients come from every economic stratum and ethnic/racial background. What unites them is an unwanted diagnosis of cancer and the need to control it with powerful chemicals.

Some members of the Friday infusion club don't look sick at all. They are working on their laptops and talking on their cellphones. For them, it's a day at the office, their Friday office being the infusion room. Whatever their prognosis, they show every sign of planning to be around.

I've been exchanging smiles with a young woman so chic she makes her chemo bag look almost like an accessory. I tell her that I don't work here, but could I get her something? A blanket? A magazine? Fig Newtons? "No," she says, laughing, "but thanks so much."

This being a community hospital, it is not unusual for patients to discover -- not unhappily -- that people they knew from high school are also coming in for treatment. A nurse told me, "I sometimes hear patients exclaim, 'Oh, my God, I didn't know you were coming here!'"

A reporter friend who covered organized crime recalls a time when she took her husband to his chemo session and someone tapped her shoulder from behind.

"Hi!" the person said. He was a mobster there for his own infusion.

The old chemo infusion center was more of an open room with patients seated around a horseshoe. The new design has partitions between the chemo bays, affording more privacy and a sense of being in a stylish living room.

It's all very orderly. From the nurses station comes a small bang and a "whoops." An authoritative female voice booms across the room: "We don't want to hear 'whoops' from the nurses area."

The modern infusion room has its own rules for interior design. Pinterest offers the "26 best Infusion Center Design images." Some resemble lobbies of three-star hotels.

This one has translucent partitions between the infusion bays that can be opened for conversation. The nurse said they encourage patients to do what they'd ordinarily be doing on a Friday -- within the constraints of being attached to a chemo bag, of course.

The hospital volunteers, all women so far, are the most wonderful beings. Radiating generosity, they offer to make patients feel comfortable in ways the patients hadn't thought of.

The therapy dog sometimes comes around on Friday. He too does his job, though I wonder what the dog thinks his job is.

One Friday afternoon, a nurse made the rounds with a bag of lovely wool shawls, handing them to patients. Knitted by women at a local church, the shawls choked me up for the kindness they represented, as well as their beauty.

Speaking of knits, an elegant, perfectly manicured older woman always sports a snazzy knit hat. It took a while to sink in that the cap is being worn to cover hair loss from the chemo.

No one volunteers for cancer, and certainly not the treatments. But the progress made in dealing with both the disease and the humans so burdened makes one grateful to be living in the 21st century.


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