My treatment for acute myeloid leukemia required four separate hospital stays. They began with a 37-day stint for initial treatment and concluded with a 25-day stay for my actual transplant, with two, one-week stints in between to keep my disease under control until my transplant.
From my first days in the hospital, it was evident that there was very little I could control in my new circumstances. Rather than indulging in despair or frustration, I resolved to focus on my immediate environment and be as pro-active as possible in that small world.
Toward that end, I took charge of my room by making my bed every morning and fastidiously keeping everything neat and tidy throughout the day. I began the exercise routines and mindfulness practices described in previous posts. I wrote regular reports to keep people informed about my status. It wasn’t much, but it still provided some sense of agency and control within my new “home.”
I also brought a pro-active attitude to my medical care. I looked forward to my daily consultations with the doctors whenever they happened to drop in. I always had questions ready about my treatment, medications, and progress. Their willingness to entertain my questions and concerns felt very supportive, and our consultations came to feel like a synergistic collaboration.
For example, there were at least two occasions when I experienced unwelcome side effects from my medications. As they speculated on the causes, I would add my own observations about the dosing, timing and effects of various drugs. Through these collaborative discussions, we successfully resolved some problems that had perplexed each of us individually.
My most frequent and prolonged interactions, however, were with my nurses. From the start, I sought to create some rapport as they tended to my needs. This began as a conscious strategy on my part, but quickly evolved into a genuine appreciation for all they did and a grateful acknowledgement of their challenges throughout the day.
When time permitted, we would chat about relatives, crack some jokes, commiserate about politics, or share life stories. Each of these conversations reframed their clinical care-giving into a more human and personal interaction. The small efforts I made to establish rapport were repaid many times over in the care I received.
In all these ways, I sought to be an active subject in my care rather than a passive object receiving medical ministrations. Now for the standard disclaimer. I have no idea if my proactive stance had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it gave me a significant role in my medical drama that was rewarding in itself.
Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor. In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness. His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.