“Are you warm enough, honey?” I hear her as they round the corner in front of where we are waiting to be seen at the 10th Floor ATC. “She” is a 60 something petite woman pushing her husband and a couple of bags in a wheelchair. If he answers her, I don’t hear. He has on a mask and looks utterly exhausted. They are coming to wait with us, thus I know that he has most likely had a stem cell transplant at some point. He sits in his wheelchair dozing off and on. I notice the way she looks at him periodically, and it melts my heart. He doesn’t notice, but I feel sure he knows.
“What’d she have you drink?” she asks. “Some thick sh@# and some crackers,” he answers in a raspy voice. I resist my urge to laugh at his answer. They are probably close to my husband and me in age. They walk on past the ATC; must be going for bloodwork on down the hall.
When we arrived at the ATC waiting area, I immediately noticed a very young, very thin young man who waits wearing a Texas Tech track suit, brand new black Nikes, and a red skull cap. Sitting next to him is a lady who I’m quite sure is his mom. One doesn’t often see children who are patients here because all of their care is clustered in separate dedicated pediatric areas; therefore, I know he must be at least 18, but I’m guessing not much older. I think of my own son who is 18 and say a quick prayer for both of them. I make my brain move on because I’ve learned to do that as a coping mechanism. Some things are just too painful to dwell on for long, and since I know today is going to be challenging for my husband, I must remain strong.
Next a tall man with graying hair walks past carrying a black leather bag with a flashy sparkly silver bottom. It catches my eye as he reaches in to pull out a bottled drink and hands it to his much shorter wife. “You need to drink this,” he says. I smile to myself because I’ve said those words SO many times over the past several years. I admire his cool bag, and the way he puts his hand on her back protectively.
At MD Anderson if you aren’t immediately sure of who is Patient and who is Caregiver, it becomes quickly apparent. One would think the patients would be the ones that are simple to spot, and sometimes they are, but for me, picking out the caregivers is actually easier. Patients, I’ve observed, have many looks. The obvious ones at MD Anderson are wearing masks, are bald or have on a scarf/hat, are thin or pale, but there are also those who look perfectly healthy with the only tell tale sign being the ever present white wristband. Sometimes they look scared, and sometimes they seem happy. Occasionally they look sad and defeated; often they just appear bone numbingly tired.
Caregivers here, however, almost always have a recognizable “look” on their face. It’s this combination of determination and authority. There is usually a quick smile, but when you look in their eyes you see stress and pain. They are normally loaded down with several bags—backpack, tote, purse, rolling case, and/or white paper shopping bag from the pharmacy. Often there is a notebook or file folder, hospital papers of some sort, and their smartphone with the MyMDAnderson app pointing to the next appointment location. They push the wheelchair, carry the water bottle, go get the car or call for the shuttle. These people give up their seats, hold the elevator, and figure out the maze of corridors, parking garages, buildings, and elevators A-Z. They bring or purchase snacks and drinks for the patient, remember insurance and medical information, take classes to learn to care for PICCs and CVCs, and do everything within their power to make the journey as stress free as possible for their charge. They come in all sizes, ages, and ethnicities, but universally, they have a single minded purpose….taking care of their loved one come hell or high water.
I am proud to say that I’m a member of their ranks.