Herman snuck home from camp hiding in my daughter’s arm pit. As parents we did not approve of Herman, especially as we didn’t even know who his family was. Herman was a tennis ball sized lump that the camp doctor had already called us about. “It’s probably nothing, but you should get it checked out when the summer camp is over.” He did not however, refer to Herman by the nickname that Heather and the kids from the camp used. We also noticed that Heather had packed on some extra weight after 2 months helping at camp. Of course this is not something parents point out to a 17 year old girl, society is already far too zealous at over emphasizing weight and figure to a young women. Curiously all the weight was in the front belly, as if in early pregnancy.
Heather’s doctor was puzzled by Herman, as she poked, prodded, and tested to try to determine who Herman’s parents were. Then the stomach pain started. “Most likely she is nervous about her job and starting grade 12.” But the pain quickly became worse, and soon school and work became impossible for her.
All the while her doctors were trying to puzzle out who Herman was, and why was Heather in such abdominal distress. She could not sleep lying down. The doctor gave her Demerol for the pain. One vivid evening she took two Demerol and lay down. A half hour latter she was back upstairs, stamping her feet and crying “Daddy, make the pain go away!” (What causes so much pain that two Demerol will not even take the edge off it so that an exhausted young woman can sleep?)
The next morning an ultra-sound technician finally found Herman’s mother. She was a malignant tumour 10x11x14 cm, the size of a man’s fist, surrounded by vast quantities of fluid, sitting on an ovary and pushing and distorting all the other organs in the area. An emergency MRI/CAT Scan found more of Herman’s siblings, tumours forming up in the lungs, stomach, and tumour induced pancreatitis.
Six days later we had an urgent consultation with several oncologists and a battery of specialized tests. By the end of the day they had uncovered Herman’s family name: Stage 4 Burkitt’s Lymphoma. The book the doctors had given us stated: “without treatment the lifespan of a person with Burkitt’s is measured in weeks.” Heather had Herman with her for two months now, and his mother most likely for longer. Heather was admitted to hospital the next business minute.
I was later told by a doctor that Burkitt’s is the only cancer that is considered an emergency when found. Later the medical staff at the Cross Cancer Institute admitted they did not expect Heather to live through the first weekend in the hospital.
My dear wife had declared that Heather was going to get 7/24 family presence at all times during the upcoming fight. I had the first weekend midnight shift. I sat and stayed awake as my daughter slipped between fitful sleep and sleepy wakefulness. She remembers waking up to find me playing gin rummy with her Teddy Bear. I suppose that was a little odd, because even with fatigue and worry, I still won 2/3 of the games. (The bear was not very good at cards.)
Things got worse as the night progressed. In the wee hours of the morning Heather was unconscious with her head back, exposing her neck. I could tell her breathing was getting shallow and erratic. I watched and counted the pulse in her neck as it got faster, weaker, and also erratic. Two of the three nurses on duty ended up in the room after a regular vitals check. Apparently her body temperature had shot up 3 degrees for no visible reason. I was helplessly watching as my daughter drifted towards the strong shadow of death that hovered around that room.
Thankfully she woke with the dawn to the start of another day of chemo. Before the chemo started to destroy Herman’s family, Heather continued to gain fluid and tumour weight in the abdomen. So much so that she truly look pregnant. But this was not a joyful pregnancy leading to glorious new life; this was a pregnancy of pain leading to the prospect of early death.
A month later as the fight with Herman and his family continued, the doctors were concerned that Heather was not getting out of bed enough. So we encouraged her to walk once around the hospital ward. As I gave her my arm and helped her walk a thought struck me. I had always expected to someday escort my daughter down the aisle, bright eyed and beautiful, wearing a wedding gown, crowned with a beautiful coiffure of hair, possibly with a head piece, corsage, train and attendants. Now I was walking her down the hospital aisle, she was dull eyed from pain and morphine. Her gown was a hospital frock, her head crowned by gleaming baldness, her corsage an implanted shunt for quick administration of drugs, her train was intravenous lines leading to a hospital pole festooned with attendant bags of platelets, antibiotics, saline, nutrients, drugs and that harsh helper: chemo.
My feelings as a father were absolute anguish. I was bought up in the 50’s and 60’s when even the most well meaning parents taught their sons that: “real men don’t cry”. I may have been pretending to be composed on the outside, but I was sobbing on the inside.
My daughter is cursed with the personality of her father. We share a stubborn streak wider than all rationality. Usually this is a vice we inflict on those we love, rather than a virtue. But during her three and a half months in the hospital it was a virtue as Heather battled cancer, chemo, drug reactions, pain, a mouth turned into one giant sore, chemo administered into the spine which caused blinding headaches, 24 bags of blood and platelets, and being neutropenic with an immune system that came within a whisper of shutting down.
The end result of all this was Herman and his family being evicted forever. To this day Heather is convinced that between her and her five brothers, she had the personality that was best suited to surviving the fight with Herman and his relatives.
As a family we also had to concern ourselves with many other issues during this time ranging a totalled family van to my openly hostile company finally firing me at Christmas time.
On the up side, there was phenomenal support from family, friends, church family, and a strong faith. We did not buy or prepare food or shovel snow for three months. We were gifted with a used car to tide us over as well as money to pay our deductible, and other gifts.
Of course this is not really Herman’s story, it is part of Heather’s story and it is continuing to this day. She has just started nursing studies at Grant MacEwan University. She figures that she has a lot of experience at being a patient and she can pass that empathy on to others.
And me? I am again waiting for the day when Heather meets her life partner and I get to walk her down the aisle, this time with bright and maybe moist eyes.