Scenes from the Medical Apocalypse

I was fortunate enough to survive - so far - a terminal cancer diagnosis (secondary Glioblastoma), which came 15 years after my initial brain tumor diagnosis (neurocytoma). An integral part of surviving something that should - mathematically - have killed me last year is aggressively managing my health and the disease. Which means, perhaps inevitably, that I will be in a large research hospital for any crisis lasting more than a few months (in the event of a complete societal collapse; I will die)(keep that in mind the next time you're in a voting booth). If I'm scheduled for routine maintenance in the middle of a national medical emergency; I get all sorts of deferments and postponements. I'm used to it; I've spent 18 years adjusting to my demotion to first on the social chopping block.

Even that didn’t prepare me for the experience of actually being thrown on the block.

I was met with a locked door and an abandoned desk at the usual MRI station in a temporary building (I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I have yet to encounter a scanner in a clean, well-lit, permanent place; I suspect the radiology departments are holding out for an amazing breakthrough in CT scan technology that’ll allow them to get rid of this crummy, unreliable technology that’s lead to breakthroughs in early cancer detection), and, after knocking and waiting a few minutes (if, God forbid, you need to go through a medical facility in the next few months, "cross-contamination" and "community spread" are thoughts you need to banish from your mind) an MRI technician I’ve seen around the facility answers the door.

"I recognize you; you're here all the time! Yeah, they shunted most of our regulars to XXXX Allsmith Road."

I'm not even 40, but I suddenly feel ancient, and I get the feeling the next few hours will age me. A lot.

After spending 20 minutes finding the emergency, back-up MRIs designated for those of us who won't get ventilators (another question I have for hospital planners is, "Why do patients have to ask a minimum of three staff where the back-up equipment is?") I arrive at an almost-literal bunker deep within the bowels of the medical office building that housed non-essential research staff when I was in treatment. It's comforting to think that, in the event of a medical emergency, qualified neuropsychology grad students are only five stories up. Unfortunately, I won't be able to contact them via cell phone, because my reception starts above ground (I wish I was exaggerating).

The subterranean staff are all pleasant, and so fast and efficient; I’m aware there’s a line for the machine that I’m holding up. I’m only partially robed (that’s the best I can do these days in ten minutes)(again, as a special-needs human these days, I’m just as aggravated at my ineptitude as you are; unlike you, I can’t escape it) when another technician asks if I’m ready. Because body shame is a non-issue for cancer survivors, I just shrug. It’s warm enough and my muscle definition is good enough that I’d leap onto that MRI bed naked if it saved time.

If I seem petty or disgruntled in this dispatch, I’m usually a good sport and even-tempered. I knew the doughnut preferences of the infusion nurses when I was in treatment. It’s just disheartening to see a place that seemed to take special pride in caring for - even shielding - all of God’s deformed, wretched, abandoned creatures, reduced to this: drive-thru McMedicine.

It’s not until I go back to the main campus of the cancer center for a blood draw that the magnitude of this health crisis hits me: normally, mid-day, mid-week at the infusion center is packed with people. Now, today, the total number of people is dwarfed by the cast of "28 Days Later." That includes the staff. The fastest I’ve ever been taken in for a blood draw - including when I did it at a smaller, satellite clinic to avoid traffic - is 15 minutes. There are so few patients that I’m talking to my favorite phlebotomist within five minutes of entering the hospital (yes, I have a favorite phlebotomist, that’s how serious my chronic health problems are).

Upon returning home, I get a call from Head Warlock in Charge’s assistant, telling me that my teleconference with HWIC has been delayed until tomorrow afternoon. I desperately hope there’s no change in my medical condition. I really hope there’s nothing wrong with me. I hope there’s nothing wrong with you, dear reader, because the clear message I got this afternoon was, "No vacancy."

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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