How it Feels to Get Chemo During Covid-19
I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to. But since I do, I’ve got a little Purell bottle in my palm inside my left jacket pocket, an N95 mask I used to wear for woodworking, and just for good measure I packed a bottle of Lysol wipes in case I’ll need it. Pre-pandemic, I would never touch this stuff and would instead reach for my little bottles of essential oils. Now we are in Lysol-land.
At the entrance, I am asked to wait my turn for the massive rotating door – only one person at a time. After the door, a nurse in full hazmat suit covering is asking standard screening questions. “Any new or worse symptoms of cough, sore throat, breathing issues?” “Have you travelled in the last 14 days.” etc. We are all operating on 14 days of memory now. Where was I, where was I, oh, of course, I was here. Nope, haven’t travelled.
“I’m here for chemotherapy,” I tell another hazmat nurse who hands me a ‘PASS’ sticker. When do they give out the other sticker, I wonder, the ‘FAIL’ one. Maybe along with your ashes? (Sorry, is this humour too dark? You are reading from a cancer patient’s head.) I didn’t have to show proof, because who would fake coming to chemotherapy during a pandemic outbreak.
The normally busy check-in lobby for chemo day procedure is still just as busy as before the pandemic, but we are now practicing social distancing and so the connected row of chairs are cordoned off in places. I don’t have a measuring tape with me, but every other chair is definitely not six meters. We do what we can here. Visitors are no longer permitted, so the patients are mostly by themselves. What this does though, is cut the number of people here in half and room conversations are reduced to almost none.
Just three weeks ago, things were different. At my last appointment before the great COVID-19 Lockdown of 2020, I was amazed at how over 100 people were being processed through chemo check-in within the first hour in the morning. The lobby was usually packed, chair to chair. Each patient would bring a friend or family members to help with their things, jackets, snacks, or just to help keep up spirits. Nobody wants to be here and since misery loves company, there was always a layer of conversation noise in the background, mixed in with the faint news report from the TV screen. Every so often the buzzer with go off with an irregular beat “beep bepbepbep beep bep” It was a standard lobby cacophony, this is a busy hospital and we all didn’t notice it. Now without all the visitors, the silence is quite noticeable.
I opted for a call to my cellphone rather than a pager. I once wrote about this pager thing on a cancer support Facebook group and someone told me that I can request having them call me so that I don’t need to return the pager just to get my chair information. BRILLIANT. Why was this not ever mentioned I started?
I head to the waiting room chairs spilled out into the hallway corridor, each six meters apart. I take a seat at the loneliest looking chair in the hall. Social distancing.
Due to COVID-19, there have been reports of several hospitals in Toronto not booking cancer surgeries because they could move more patients through the OR and ICU a lot faster. Meanwhile, those who are diagnosed with cancer, a terminal illness in every sense of the world, wait on and watch. Timing is everything.
Earlier this year, pre-pandemic outbreak, when I got my latest diagnosis of stage 4 metastases to the liver, I switched from my general hospital that’s close to my house to a cancer research institute. Now that the pandemic has upended and disrupted all our lives, I am grateful to be able to continue my treatment at this institution while my previous hospital is turned into a COVID-19 Assessment Centre. The anxiety of the current situation is heavy on all cancer patients’ minds, of course. Having to leave our protective bubble of a house to go into a hospital during a pandemic outbreak, with everyone heightened on hygiene and masks, while you are as immunocompromised as they come, makes for a very stressful time indeed. But at the very least we are getting treated for what was really going to kills us: cancer.
When I am called, I head over to my chair, settle my things on hooks and organize the props I need during the infusion: water bottle, headphone, snacks, napkins. Usually, my husband or another friend would be here, but since no visitors are allowed, the patients are by themselves. I notice a drastic difference in the chemotherapy ward this time: there are no chit chats, no constant background noise of people talking over the beeps from the machines. The silence could be the sound of loneliness, but the ward is rather peaceful. – Ann Poochareon