My wife, Laurie, died on September 10, 2001 (the day before 9-11) after suffering terribly from cancer.
You tend to learn a lot of stuff…about cancer, treatments, people, life…when you’re going through this process with a loved one.
We “celebrated” our 21st wedding anniversary 4 days before she died, as well as my sister’s & Laurie’s Mom’s birthdays 2 days earlier. Life continues to march on while you’re trapped in this timeless, senseless void which, interestingly, is filled with all the time & feelings in the world.
Laurie was originally diagnosed in June 1995.
She underwent external radiation treatments in July and then, in September, had 2 surgical procedures performed where they inserted rods (filled with radioactive material) into her to kill the tumor(s).
She underwent life-saving, emergency surgery that Christmas morning…and again, exactly one year to the day & hour, the following Christmas morning.
Apparently, the idiots that handled the surgical procedure in September used a SULFUR-based ointment internally on Laurie (to assist with the actual placement of the rods).
Laurie happened to be wearing a bracelet at the time.
And since I was such a cheap bastard (Says who? Far from it!), it was a flimsy plastic bracelet.
Not a problem, except that it was an “Allergy” bracelet…
…and it read “Sulfur”.
A sulfur-based ointment, applied to her “private area”, when the patient is wearing an allergy bracelet for “sulfur” & her records clearly reflected that fact, is indeed a problem. This caused her extreme discomfort, uncontrollable burning & itching after the first procedure, so much so that she couldn’t remain absolutely still for 2 days as prescribe, er, ordered & wound up burning a whole bunch of her insides.
She had radioactive material, specifically designed to burn away the tumor, now moving around her body as it was impossible for her to lie absolutely still.
When I was finally allowed to see her when they returned her to her room, I hit the ceiling as soon as I opened the door!!!
SHE WAS WALKING AROUND IN INCREDIBLE DISTRESS, CRYING THAT HER INSIDES WERE BURNING & ITCHING HER BEYOND CONTROL.
I got her back into bed & immediately screamed for the nurses!
Oh, by the way, Laurie had the absolutely highest pain threshold of any person I ever knew! You could smash her hand with a hammer…and she would feel no pain.
Could you ever imagine what she was…
Apparently, the charred flesh (her insides that should NOT have been affected) flaked off during the following 3 months & formed a complete blockage in her intestine.
Surgery on Christmas morning…she had to have a section of her intestine removed.
(I believe I talk about her 2nd radioactive material implant procedure, just 2 weeks later, in a later story…and exactly how we discovered the blunder by staff at Santa Rosa Hospital on Babcock Road in the Medical Center.)
Well, the intestinal blockage once again formed so one year to the day, she had to undergo yet another emergency surgery, this time, to remove even more of her intestine. In addition, they performed a total hysterectomy.
Interestingly (?) enough, I had proposed a total hysterectomy when she was initially diagnosed in June of 1995.
In 2000, after a few years of this monster being in remission, it reared its ugly head again…with a vengeance!
On August 28, 2000, she was given a year to live.
She beat that diagnosis by 13 days, though I seriously doubt if her last 6 months could ever be considered “living”.
Remember how I mentioned her incredible pain tolerance?
During the last year of her life, I was taking care of her at home, right up until the day she died. (Hospice came for her on a Sunday morning & brought her to their facility on Cinnamon Road, right by USAA. She passed less than 24 hours later as I was holding her hand.)
Once, I happened to mention just how much liquid morpheme she was receiving on a daily basis to her primary care physician, Dr. Sybil Morgan (a wonderful lady & physician). When I told her, “About 6-7 ounces a day”, she commented, “Surely you’re mistaken, Mr. LoRusso. That’s enough morpheme to stop a herd of charging elephants!”
“Dr. Morgan, I know exactly how much she gets. I give it to her myself. She starts off the day with a shot glass full of it…and has at least 2 more throughout the day. She completely finishes a quart bottle of morpheme in less than a week!”
And this for someone with an unbelievably-high threshold for pain.
(Pls note: All I know is that it was liquid morpheme. I’m not sure if it came in different strengths or what. I can imagine the health professionals in our reading audience shaking their heads at me.
I do remember getting some on my fingers once so I just instinctively licked it off. OMG, my mouth was numb for quite a while.)
After we received the fatal diagnosis in August 2000 in Dr. Mark D _ _ _ _ _ _’s office, she started chemotherapy soon afterwards. It was a desperate attempt for a miracle.
We then visited M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, the #1 rated facility in the world & renowned across the globe…again, looking for a miracle in the form of a clinical trial that they may have been conducting.
And, like I said, you learn a whole lot about stuff when you’re going through this ordeal.
Not sure I’ve ever cried as much during my entire life that I did during that last year…but never in front of Laurie.
And as far as I know, she NEVER cried…never COMPLAINED…never QUESTIONED why she was a cancer victim.
She never, ever asked, “Why me? Why me, God? What did I do?”
Always worried about everyone else. Heather, me, Julia, our families, our friends.
(Actually, she cried once, wondering what she had done wrong because a close friend of hers suddenly abandoned her…no calls, no visits, nothing. “What did I do wrong, babe?”
“You did nothing wrong, Laurie. Absolutely nothing wrong.”)
Anyway, here are a few things that I learned, experienced & observed along the way…
> I remember when we first went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
As soon as we walked into the hospital lobby, I mentioned to Laurie, “This place smells like money!”
It was an incredibly impressive structure. The lobby alone wold make any luxury hotel jealous. They were so automated with absolutely everything.
When Laurie was first diagnosed in ‘95, there were 4 gynecologist-oncologists in all of San Antonio.
MD Anderson had the entire 9th floor of a complete wing dedicated to Gynecology!
And being part of the University of Texas Health & Science Center system, they were well-funded & regularly receive millions upon millions in donations…from UT benefactors & alumni as well as donors & patients worldwide.
They are so famous & renowned around the world.
In fact, we stayed at one of the hotels along “Hotel Row”, a whole group of hotels that cater to the patients & families of those being treated in Houston’s Medical Center, for which MD Anderson is its most prominent member.
Our hotel was almost completely filled with people from Saudi Arabia & surrounding Arab countries as clearly evidenced by the cultural garb of the guests.
We were the exception.
If you have someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, of any kind, try to get them to MD Anderson.
And while there are other incredible cancer treatment centers across the country…Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NY, John Hopkins in MD, Mayo Clinic in MN, Cleveland Clinic in OH, etc….there is none better than this one.
> We went to MD Anderson looking for a miracle. Not a confirmation of the diagnosis that we just recently received, but a miracle.
I did a bunch of research on various clinical trials being held across the country…and quite a few were being conducted right here.
I would say to every doctor & nurse & professional we saw that “I know you guys are conducting some weird experiments on monkeys somewhere in a closet around here…that’s what I’m looking for my wife!”
But, unfortunately, all we found was a reaffirmation of that same terrible diagnosis.
Seems that the recent chemotherapy treatments that Laurie had been receiving made her ineligible for every clinical trial currently underway. (Researchers want “clean subjects” so they’re better able to match results to their specific treatment protocol, with as few other possibly-influencing factors as practical.)
But we did have this wonderful experience as we were waiting in the hallway to meet with yet another specialist.
“Excuse me & I sincerely apologize for overhearing your conversation, but it seems to me that you’re looking for a clinical trial to participate it. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is. And you are?”
The young man went on to introduce himself. Apparently, the US Navy was looking for candidates to participate in a clinical trial they were conducting back on the East Coast (in Norfolk, VA). Prior chemotherapy treatments would not automatically invalidate one’s eligibility, but the chances of being accepted were about 10:1.
“You, Sir, are an Angel sent to us from God! We can’t thank you enough for overhearing our conversation & for taking the time to talk with us! God bless you so much!”
Finally, a ray of hope.
He took all our information & said it would take a few weeks before we heard back from the Navy.
As it turned out, Laurie was not accepted as a participant, but we were so grateful for the opportunity extended to us.When Laurie was first diagnosed in ‘95 & we met her gynecologist-oncologist for the first time in Santa Rosa hospital…
(Note: We’ll refer to him as “Dr. Mark D”…and if he would like to sue me for defamation of character or anything else, as you’ll find out later, let’s get it on! I ain’t got a damned penny to my name, but I would so relish the opportunity to grill your ass in front of a judge & jury, trust me, assuming I don’t get my hands on you first!)
…we were told of all the various treatment protocols possible.
It looked like “radiation” & “chemotherapy” were the top 2 choices.
Seemed that radiation had a better track record than chemo…a 62% success rate vs. a 58% foot chemo.
I also asked him what he would do if it were his wife.
Everyone agreed on radiation.
And then, naturally, since I have a fake advanced medical degree specializing in this type of cancer, I asked, “Why, then, don’t we do both radiation & chemo simultaneously? I don’t mean at exactly the same time, but when you’re weakening the bastard with the poison, you can also zap it with your ray gun. The chemo kinda stuns it & weakens it, then the radiation comes in for the kill!”
Everyone laughed…at me, but me.
“That’s not one of the accepted protocols for this type of cancer!”
“Well, I’m not really interested in what’s considered to be acceptable. I’m looking for the best possible treatment for my wife!”
This time, it was just a derisive chuckle.
Then I said, “Why don’t we just take everything out of her? I mean, we’re not having any more kids so wouldn’t it be a feasible move, no?”
Maybe I was just supposed to shut up & nod my head.
According to the doctors assembled, performing surgery would increase the probability of the cancer spreading.
So we did the radiation thingie.
(And they wound up screwing up one of the radioactive implant procedures & as cited earlier, caused irreparable damage to Laurie.)
> Comes 2000 & the cancer returns. It was probably just napping. I don’t think the SOB ever really goes away.
After we meet with Dr Mark D & get his diagnosis, we discuss next steps.
He’s leaning toward “maintaining her quality of life”, code word for “no treatment”. Die quietly & try to enjoy your last few months.
But Heather was only 16 at the time & I knew how much she’d need Laurie as she became an adult.
I pushed for something. Anything. A 1,000.000 to 1 shot. Divine intervention. A miracle.
I didn’t wanna give up.
This time, we decided on chemotherapy as the radiation treatments clearly weren’t completely successful last time in eradicating this monster.
We started chemo ASAP.
Chemo on Wednesdays for 2 consecutive weeks. Then means throwing up from Thursday morning until Tuesday night.
Then, every 3rd week, she’d get this special injection that would help her red blood cells produce new, healthy blood.
Then back to chemo.
After we began the chemotherapy regimen, I continued to do more research, especially on the MD Anderson website (looking at clinical trials) when I came across a VERY INTERESTING ARTICLE.
It was an excerpt from the New England Journal of Medicine that addressed a new cancer treatment protocol.
For Laurie’s specific cancer.
Believe it or not, it spoke about how the newest, and best, treatment to attack this type of cancer was SIMULTANEOUS RADIATION & CHEMOTHERAPY!!!
Years earlier, they ridiculed me when I proposed this exact thing.
And it’s success rate was in the mid-70%s…as compared to chemo alone @ 58% & radiation alone @ 62%!!!
OK, I had recommended this 5 years ago. And by no means am I “blaming” any medical professional for not listening to this hysterical husband who recommended this type of treatment before it was generally accepted by the medical community.
(Do I wish Laurie had a forward-thinking doctor who could/would have considered this as a logical possibility?
Yes, of course, but…)
Here’s what really got me, though.
It’s September 2000 & I’m reading this excerpt from the New Rngland Journal of Medicine…the most renowned publication in the entire field of medicine…the medical Bible…that was published in their FEBRUARY 2000 ISSUE!!!
It had been available to EVERY doctor & medical professional for at least 6 full months before we had that discussion with Dr. Mark D on 8/28/00.
6 full months!
You’re a Gynecology/Oncology specialist. This article matched exactly what Laurie was suffering from.
This is your job.
We have an appointment with Dr. Mark Doherty in a few days. (Oooops!)
I bring up the topic of why he didn’t recommend this “simultaneous chemo/radiation” treatment for Laurie a couple of weeks earlier. (BTW, he worked for the Navy previously & was trained at the MD Anderson Cancer Center!)
“I didn’t know about it.”
My head imploded.
“How could you have not have heard about this?!? I just read it myself on the MD Anderson website! The New England Journal of Medicine printed it in their February issue! That is your Bible!”
I really started to lose it. The NY Italian is me was all revved up.
He blurted out some feeble excuse for “not getting around to it”.
Now, everything from the waist up exploded!
“How could you have not read it?!? This is your friggin’ speciality. Gynecology/Oncology. This is what you do every goddamned day. Didn’t you discuss this at a cocktail party or dinner with some of your peers? Wouldn’t it be a major topic of discussion for you guys? If you’re so goddamned busy, why don’t you have a reading service that does this & lets you know what’s going on in your specific field of medicine? I’m in banking & I know every goddamned thing under the sun about banking…and I’m not in charge of saving people’s lives!!!”
I was incensed. Laurie, naturally, is trying to calm me down.
“This idiot is not even up-to-date on the biggest development in his field in years! And now we can’t even do it because we already started the chemo! I wanna kill him!”
I glared at him…and he was not a small guy.
“I don’t care if you were a freakin’ Navy Seal!” and he knew exactly what I meant! He had this gigantic desk separating us.
Oh, yeah, at the end of the visit, after I calmed down & offered the prerequisite, but by no means genuine, apology, he informed us that he was moving to Waco, TX to work at the Baylor University Hospital & that his practice was being assumed by Dr. James Mark.
On the way out, I apologized to his staff for my behavior.
> When we were at MD Anderson, I didn’t rent a car as the hotel provided an airport shuttle as well as one to various stops in the Medical Center.
One evening, after Laurie had undergone a bunch of tests, we were waiting for the shuttle bus right outside the hospital entrance.
Guess we were waiting for ~10 minutes when, all of a sudden, a police car pulled up. And no, I didn’t immediately & instinctively spread eagle in the bus shelter.
It was actually a UTHSC/UT Health & Science Center Police car and he rolled down his window.
“It’s pretty chilly out here tonight. How ’bout I give you two a ride back to your hotel?”
That was so very, very nice.
Everyone with whom we came into contact there at MD Anderson was extremely nice, cordial…and understanding.
So was everyone at the hotel, including all the other guests.
As were all the people when I took Laurie was her chemo treatments as well as Dr. Mark D’s (and later, Dr. James Mark’s) staff at the office.
I remember at our last visit to the office when I brought a large bouquet of flowers and a few trays of cookies for the nurses & the clerical staff.
I remember telling them & Dr. James Mark, “I don’t know how you guys do it. I don’t know how you get yourselves outta bed in the morning every day & drag yourselves to work, knowing damned well that many of the people that you’re treating today you’re not going to be seeing in the future!
“I don’t know how you do it, but I thank God that you do what you do & for the manner in which you do it.
“You make my Laurie feel so valued & appreciated and she’s loves to see all your smiling faces when we come here.
I thank you from the very bottom of my heart for all that you’ve done for her!”
They all came out from behind their stations & we all hugged each other.
And cried our eyes out.
As did the few people in the waiting area.
> Laurie had a very good friend in San Antonio by the name of Judy. (She had a lot of wonderful friends as she was always so friendly & “bouncy” to everyone.)
Judy & her husband, Phil, were originally from Long Island in NY so the girls bonded immediately. Phil was a pilot for Southwest, based out of Baltimore where he was the #1 pilot. I always found it amusing that he hadda fly across the country just to go to work.
But since he had the most seniority there, he got to choose his schedule (versus being nth in line in Houston & getting whatever’s left over).
When Laurie got sick again in 2000, she & Judy got even closer than ever before.
Judy, herself, just celebrated 5 years of being trouble-free from breast cancer. She had a partial mastectomy so she was quite familiar with the ravages of cancer.
Once Laurie received her diagnosis on 8/28/00 and for every single night up until her death on Monday morning, Sept 10, 2001, Judy spent anywhere from 30 mins to 2-3 hours with Laurie on her bed.
Every single night.
Even when Judy had a wedding to go to one evening…she came over in her gown.
Even when Laurie was totally out of it the past couple of months.
Rain or shine, Judy was there.
Whatever I happened to be doing at the time, I got relegated to the couch in the den to watch TV or listen to some music or do some work. (I owe so much to Citi for allowing me to work from home during the last year of Laurie’s life. Every month or so, I’d run into the office to see my people while Judy came over to stay with Laurie for a couple of hours. I will be forever grateful to them for enabling me to spend all this time taking care of Laurie.)
She would shut the door to the bedroom, get up on the bed & keep my Laurie company.
To this day, I would lay in front of a speeding locomotive for Judy & give her the last penny I had to my name. I would do absolutely anything for that lady…and she knows it.
In times like this, you really learn a lot about people…the good as well as the bad. We’ll just leave it at that for now.
As always, thank you so very much for listening!