When I was a kid I had braces on my teeth. For a while I had this contraption in the roof of my mouth that was supposed to widen it. Twice a day I had to stick a small key in the middle of the device and push it back, effectively expanding the metal and plastic. I could feel separation anxiety in my nose and jaw. It wasn’t so much painful as it was annoying. Like having a piece of popcorn stuck between two close teeth. You felt abnormal enough to where you couldn’t concentrate on anything for a while.
This immune system booster I had to have injected in my stomach multiple times caused a similar effect, but in my pelvic bones, spine and thigh bones. If you moved, you winced. Being in bed proved difficult. The only thing that helped was standing up and being still. Then I thought, “Hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t I look this up on the web and see if there are any kinds of painkillers I can take?” That was a good idea. One I would normally have thought of immediately, except for the constant flashes of distraction barraging my thoughts. Paracetamol. A couple tablets of that and I felt good as new in about fifteen minutes.
I went for my last Bleomycin treatment. First the normal blood tests. The oncologist (my regular Tartu oncologist) said that my immune system was restored. Finally! I can get treated! “No,” she said. “Not today.”
—Wh, why not?
“It’s not that important. Let’s get you back on schedule. Come back tomorrow for your second five-day session.”
So I raced home on my bicycle—a chemo patient biking to the hospital for treatment—and tried to organize all my affairs so I could disappear for nearly a week. The next day, I checked in. At the registration desk, I was given a bracelet with my name on it. I walked the half kilometer through the wings of the hospital in Tartu to the “H korpus”. “Korpus” means “wing” or “building” in a complex. People asked me later where my room was. “It’s in the H corpse,” I would jokingly reply.
Upstairs—and this is a nice hospital, I would like to add—I approached the doors to the chemotherapy ward. There’s a handle on the door, so naturally I tried to turn the handle. Locked. I tried again. It had failed to magically unlock in the previous five seconds. Suddenly I heard this high-pitched yelling coming from the other side, up the hall. A late middle-aged Russian woman was quickly approaching from a distance, waving her arms frantically, yelling at me to not touch the door.
“Don’t touch the door!” she frantically yelled. I jumped back in fear. I’d triggered the auto-destruct for the hospital apparently. I considered jumping through the fifth-floor window. “Don’t touch the door,” she repeated in a thick accent, drawing closer.
—Well, how do I get in, then?
“Wave!” she rudely replied from behind the glass. I did not care for her attitude. I’d done nothing wrong. So I held up my hand in front of her face. And waved.
—Hi, I said. Can I come in?
“No. You have to wave.”
—I am waving. Don’t you see?
“Put your feet in a box and wave,” she stubbornly insisted.
—Alright, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I said as courteously as possible. She pointed behind me, against the wall. Box. Yes, there was a box on the floor with something blue in it. I cautiously approached, bending over to examine it like a caveman in some movie. “Ooh, gla gla,” which of course means, “Wow, fire.”
I stuck my foot in it as she watched on, nodding in encouragement. A loud snap! and my shoe was covered in blue plastic. Oh, I get it now. I repeated this for the other shoe and looked at her.
“Wave!” but this time she pointed at a black sensor on the wall. I moved my hand back and forth in front of it. Nothing happened. She then turned the same handle I’d tried and opened the door. “You can’t just come in here!” she continued. “There are people in here with no immune systems!” she bellowed. I couldn’t believe how I was being treated.
—Look, there is not a single sign on the wall or anywhere that says what I should do. Please be more polite to people. You can’t just talk to people like that.
“People are sick here!”
—I’m sick! I lost my temper. I have no immune system! That’s why I’m here!
I quickly recovered myself, told her bye-bye and walked to the nurses’ station. Two very friendly nurses smiled at me. The first thing I said was, “What’s her problem?” and I laughed.
—Russian temperament, they both replied in unison. Don’t worry about it.
After giving them my paperwork, one of them walked me to my room. It was a double room, but I had it all to myself. Instead of the high-rise sea-view I’d had in Tallinn, I had an equally beautiful view of a forested park outside the window. I like trees. I find them more interesting to gaze at than Soviet panel buildings.
I asked the nurse a few questions, like how much time I had before the chemo would start that day, could I take walks at my leisure, and if so, could I leave the chemo ward? After she answered all my inquiries, I realized I’d understood absolutely everything she’d said, and she me. Language was not an issue. This was the right hospital for me. We’re going to get along just fine.
The chemo started a couple hours later and the day passed by without event. In the early evening, after the session was over, I exited the ward, as I was allowed to, and spent about twenty or thirty minutes slowing walking in circles around the hospital complex. So many new corpses everywhere, a shiny new hospital. I was served dinner. The food was still hospital food, but it didn’t repulse me like the Tallinn stuff.
Why? I wondered. Was it because the main course consisted of something other than a piece of bread and bologna? The bologna served in the Tallinn hospital was ironically called “doctor sausage”. That’s what happens to bad doctors. Next time I’m in the deli I’m going to look for “registration office worker sausage”.
But seriously, I think the main problem with the Tallinn food—apart from the food itself—was how it was served. In those big, blue foam boxes. Those boxes had a strong chemical smell, I could remember in hindsight. A wet chemical smell. And coupled with chemo nausea, it just seemed like an incredibly irresponsible idea. In Tartu, food was served on plates, plates served on cafeteria trays. It didn’t stink like Sillamäe. The more I thought about it, I became convinced that if Tallinn served more variety in their food, and on trays instead of foam, their chemo patients wouldn’t lose so much weight.
The next day, I went for more walks before and after chemo. I was very careful to be sanitary with my shoes when I re-entered the ward (instructions on printed out paper had suddenly appeared around the door sensor and shoe-cover box, yet I didn’t see the angry Russian woman again). I’m not sure how much of a difference those little shoe covers would make though. They weren’t required in the rest of the hospital, and the chemo staff weren’t required to wear them in the ward, and they regularly walked in and out of the ward, contaminating their shoes with the germs of everybody else. I can understand needing these things if you're wearing slushy boots in winter, but in summer, what are you going to bring in from outside? Sunshine? But I would respect their wishes. “Kord on kord,” I’ve been told many times over the years. “The rules are the rules.”
During an afternoon nap, I awoke to a strange sound. A sort of scraping sound, then a loud clearing-of-voice sound. A metallic clanking. Paint smell. I looked around. Above my bed was an older woman on a ladder painting and spackling the wall. I looked at her. She looked at me. “What?” she seemed to say rudely with her eyes. “What’s your problem?” She went back to her work. I noticed she wasn’t wearing shoe covers, and her shoes were filthy. There was a mild, dusty haze in the air. Now would be a good time to go outside for a walk, get some fresh, hygienic air.
On the way out of my room I found two men doing something with the pipes in the toilet. “Jõudu!” I cheerily said as I exited.
—Hey, could you hold this for a second? one of them asked.
No, I’m just kidding. They didn’t reply to me at all, just nodded. But I would have helped had they asked. I felt fairly good. Day two of session two complete. Strange things, as always, continue to happen to me. That’s just how it is, I guess. The only thing I can do is laugh at it. Because everything is funny with the right attitude.