Friday, February 22, 2008

Fix Me (Part IV of IV)

Read these first:
Fix Me (Part I of IV)
Fix Me (Part II of IV)
Fix Me (Part III of IV)

Can humans survive a month without food? I finally started feeling better when summer fruits were hitting the markets. Of all the foods I could’ve eaten, I wanted fruit the most. I imagined the sweet taste, first bite, and juice running down my chin.

A nice man who volunteered to assist patients' families brought me plums, nectarines and peaches. I was so excited that I may not have slept the night before. But, the day he delivered them I developed an infection with yellow fungus growing on my tongue. I tried so hard just to sniff the nectarine, but I couldn’t. It was crushing, something I perceived as a major setback. I was so close, but it would be several more weeks before I could enjoy my first nectarine.

My hospital discharge also kept getting delayed. I developed problems I hadn’t heard of or known were even possible. And then, one day almost out of the blue, everything cleared up and I was discharged to our apartment two blocks away.

I was in the hospital for so long that I forgot what fresh air felt like, or what the world looked like without glass in front. I took my first step out of the hospital’s rotating doors that cloudy afternoon. I snapped a mental photograph so I’d never forget. The colors, the smell, the feeling were spectacular. It was my life's single happiest moment. During those few seconds I was high on the greatest drug of all—life.

At the apartment I listened to Travis Tritt’s It’s a Great Day to be Alive. I wasn’t angry that I developed a second cancer at 19, or that I was poked and prodded every which way, or that I lived in a single hospital room without ESPN for far too long. In City Slickers they discuss  their “best day,” and that may have been mine.

My freedom was short-lived and I was back in the hospital two days later in a demoralizing situation. If I had it my way, not a single person would see me like that. Not Biel, Keibler, a friend, brother or mother. Keibler was present when the tube finally got pulled from my penis, which then didn’t resemble a penis at all. I looked down, looked back up at Keibler and asked, “What the fuck is that?”

She looked down and said, “I don’t know.” Keibler then asked the other nurse if it was common for the tip to look like that. Yes, she responded, and it would go back to normal in a few days. Not even Wilt Chamberlain had as many people see his junk in such a short time as me those few weeks.

My only joy was watching the Arnold Schwarzenegger marathon on TV in honor of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which my family saw in the theaters later that summer. In my and my dad’s opinions, it completed Terminator as one of the greatest trilogies. We were angry Arnold traded movies to become Governator. He’s the best.

My remaining time in Minnesota was very pleasant. My brother’s good friend, NoCommonSense, visited and we all saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. I also saw one of my favorite people, Will Smith, in Bad Boys II. I laughed so hard I almost puked.

JD drove me to every eatery. I’d been dreaming about food and had to taste it all, no matter how few bites I could finish.

My mom befriended a Minnesota Twins employee who gave us press box tickets for two games. My name flashed on the jumbo screen, and we all were privileged to meet Harmon Killebrew.
Minnesota Twins Metrodome jumbo screen welcoming Benjamin Rubenstein

Minneapolis is a beautiful city with kind people, clean streets and a modern skyline. My dad walked every day along the Mississippi River enjoying the scenery, though not the angry geese that chased him. They can be mean critters.

As long as everything stays status quo, I only have to return for one more post-transplant checkup this spring. But, I expect to go back some day on my own accord. Gopher country will always hold a special place in my heart.

That goes for the hospital, as well, and all the people who worked to keep me alive. When I returned to Virginia, if I had trouble sleeping I would prop myself up with pillows and visualize lying on the retractable bed in my old hospital room. I normally felt safe and peaceful there. I’d also try to hear the buzzing of the huge HEPA filter in the ceiling. That combination put me right to sleep. I still do the pillow trick, but forgot what the HEPA filter sounded like. I think that’s a good thing.

I was given a 30% chance of surviving. I didn’t endure with superhuman abilities again, but I survived. Maybe that alone means I still have a little Superman in me.

Continue reading "My Cancer Story": So Far Away (Part I of III)

Leia Mais…

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fix Me (Part III of IV)

Read these first:
Fix Me (Part I of IV)
Fix Me (Part II of IV)

The other patients hung their pictures on the outside of their doors, mostly from when they were healthy. I added one decoration to my room, but it wasn’t a self-portrait—it was a Rocky poster. The movie is a classic, and the character, Rocky, is one of the easiest to root for of any I’ve seen. I admire Sylvester Stallone for playing and creating him. Stallone forwent guaranteed wealth to act the role instead of selling the script, a huge risk.

I feared that at some point during the transplant process I would need to be inspired. I had the same fear during my first cancer, and kept the Rocky soundtrack with me at all times. Just in case. I never listened, though. I hadn’t need it. It was evident by the third cycle of chemotherapy that I was supremely capable of battling cancer. I was The One. I was Superman.

That self-concept didn’t disappear when I was diagnosed with the second cancer, though it would diminish. Physically, I wasn’t extraordinary the way I was the first time. I didn’t recover faster, avoid more problems, or survive easier than others. The transplant pummeled me like it was supposed to. I was just an ordinary bone marrow transplant patient. At the time I was okay with being normal. Surviving was all I cared about.

I did use Rocky for inspiration, even though I may not have needed him. I glanced at him across from my bed throughout the day. And I finally listened to the soundtrack while receiving my anonymous umbilical cord stem cell transplant.

On Transplant Day, Biel brought my tiny bag of stem cells. I did a double take. This is really supposed to save me?
Benjamin Rubenstein holding umbilical cord transplant stem cells

Biel asked if I wanted to say anything before she began infusing. I wanted to say the Jewish prayer called the Sh’ma, but instead said, “Do your job, little fella.” My “no complaining” rule prohibited me from making a big deal out of it.

It was no joke and I knew that. When Biel unleashed the cells I fantasized that they rapidly duplicated and repopulated my bone marrow. The fantasies of my nurses undressing didn’t pan out, but I sure hoped this one did.

I was given memorabilia sports fans would slobber over. For my Transplant Day gift, the hospital gave me a football the Minnesota Vikings played with in a regular season game. I lacked an immune system so the ball was wrapped in two bags and had to be removed from my room immediately. It now sits at home on my Wall of Fame.Minnesota Vikings game ball Right next to that is the mini basketball signed by former University of Minnesota men’s basketball head coach, Dan Monson. Minnesota coach Dan Monson autographed basketball And a Harmon Killebrew-signed baseball. Killebrew is ninth on the all-time home run list. Harmon Killebrew autographed baseball On the Wall is my shrine to former Vikings Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper (even though I’m a Redskins fan for life).Minnesota Vikings memorabilia wall A hat signed by the quarterback Culpepper, who in 2004 had the third highest passer rating in NFL history.Vikings quarterback Dante Culpepper autographed hat And a paper signed by Culpepper, Chris Hovan, Michael Bennett and Randy Moss, who in my opinion is the most talented wide receiver ever.Minnesota Vikings player autographs
Later I was also given an autographed picture of Frank Howard, the two-time American League Home Run King.Slugger Frank Howard autographed photo And a football signed by Marcus Allen, the tenth leading rusher in NFL history.Hall-of-Famer Marcus Allen autographed football And a baseball from Lou Brock’s 3000th hit. He autographed it, of course.Lou Brock's 3000th hit autographed baseball Last but not least, the Goldy Gopher bobblehead. Goldy is the delightful University of Minnesota mascot.
University of Minnesota Golden Gopher mascot bobblehead
Keep reading:
Fix Me (Part IV of IV)

Leia Mais…

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fix Me (Part II of IV)

Read this first: Fix Me (Part I of IV)

I watched Training Day the night before treatment began. It was easy to forget that I would soon be getting inhumane doses of chemotherapy and radiation, “ten times more toxic than for your previous cancer,” one doctor said. I had my own room with a treadmill, adjustable bed, large chair with a footrest, TV, my PlayStation 2 and DVDs up the wazoo. I had pretty girls looking over me from their desk just outside my room. In every facet except one, I was in heaven. And that one facet was terrible, horrible, intolerable, and fortunately only one week long because it would’ve killed me if it was much longer.

The conditioning regimen temporarily left me unable to taste. My saliva no longer resembled a liquid—my spit stuck to my puke buckets like caulk. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hardened. I went days eating only ice chips, and weeks with several Ritz crackers. I expelled bodily fluids so violently that I had trouble getting back into bed. I Three minutes of light walking on the treadmill left me barely able to breathe, and it took five minutes of resting before my heart rate dropped below 100 beats per minute.

I nearly accepted the offer to be wheeled down to my radiation session, though I declined. I’d rather crawl on my hands and knees. By the fourth radiation session my nurses knew I would never take the seat and stopped ordering the wheelchair valet.

I was chilled to my core for weeks, despite double-layered sweats and cocooning under six blankets. I was isolated from the world and rarely glimpsed or spoke to another patient, so we kept tabs on each other through our nurses. I was "friends" with two of them.

One younger teenage boy lived in an adjacent room. I heard and felt his vomits. We often had the same ailments, almost at the same time. When I was readmitted just two days after my first hospital discharge, I wanted the same room, but it was occupied. My old next-door neighbor had been both discharged and readmitted slightly before me, for the exact same condition. In a sick way I found that hilarious.

A much younger boy's primary nurse, Racecar, told him all about me. His Transplant Day gift from the hospital was a remote control Hummer. Once he was allowed to walk in the halls he drove it around. Racecar said he walked down the hall outside my room just in case he could see me through the window. I don’t know why he looked up to me, but I wanted to continue exuding that quality, whatever it was. I hope I still do.

I know that one of my friends died.

Keep reading: Fix Me (Part III of IV)

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fix Me (Part I of IV)

Continued from “My Cancer Story": Again (Part III of III)
Read "My Cancer Story" from the beginning: The Golden Age (Part I of III)

On the plane ride I wore a high school Senior Buddy t-shirt that read “Need Help?” on the front, and “Follow Me” on the back. I wasn’t actually a Senior Buddy, but in homeroom I saw an extra shirt lying around and snagged it.

As I walked to my window seat a stranger looked at me and said, “I need help.”

“What?” I said, unsure if he was talking to me.

“Help me…it’s on your shirt.”

“Oh. Yeah. Follow me,” I said pointing to the back. He laughed.

I wasn’t used to that kind of friendly, albeit strange, conversation. But I was headed to the Midwest for my umbilical cord stem cell transplant and my mom, who grew up in Springfield, Illinois, said that’s how people are out there. She describes it as the opposite of Brooklyn, my dad's hometown. She likes to tell this story: they were in a grocery store and asked for assistance finding an item. The employee turned away from my parents, stuck his nose high in the air and named the aisle, refusing to look at them.

Our waitress at dinner asked why we were in Minneapolis. “Benjamin is getting a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota,” my mom responded. The waitress sat next to me on the booth, wrapped her arm around me and wished me luck. Before I just thought she spoke with a funny accent, but afterward I thought she lost her marbles.

We ate breakfast at McDonald’s on the way to the clinic for my first day of intense testing. I wasn’t hungry and barely ate any of my hotcakes. How could I be hungry? If my ideal bone marrow transplant was accurate then in two weeks I was going to be broken beyond a masochist’s wildest dreams.

The first test performed at the clinic was a blood draw, or more fittingly a blood drain considering there was a basketful of vials. It felt like the needle punctured my bicep. It was a bad way to start the whole process. Your confidence can only remain so high when you statistically have a better chance of dying than living.

While sitting in one of the countless waiting rooms for one of my countless tests, another future transplantee sat next to my brother. An 8-year-old from Georgia with a thick southern accent, he told JD about his four-wheeler and his plans for when he got home. He talked so fast I’m not even sure he was breathing. Every once in awhile my brother would say, “Yeah,” or “Mmm-hmm,” just to show he was still listening. The boy, who we called Georgia, was annoying to the point of being amusing, at least from my bystander perspective.

Georgia was refreshing and innocent. Whereas I understood my chances of survival but didn’t think they applied to me, he didn’t even comprehend. To him, the transplant was a means of temporarily halting his playtime. It reminded me of something in one of Lance Armstrong’s memoirs about children coping with cancer better than adults because all they want to do is finish treatment so they can go out and play.

JD and I later joked that he and Georgia were best friends. Georgia shared as much of his life story with JD as he could fit in 20 minutes of continuous talking. He probably just thought JD was friendly enough to talk to. What a tragedy that Georgia had to endure such hell just so he could once again ride on his four-wheeler, or even worse, if he didn’t live to ride again.

I’ll never know if Georgia lived. He and I were both on the bubble, meaning we had a fighting chance. I bumped into others who might as well have been stuffed in a body bag because they had no shot. Their health was too poor from the start.

My clinic conveyed a sense of peace and happiness. It was as pleasant an environment as I’d seen in a hospital, notwithstanding a floor dedicated to transplants where I’m guessing half the patients die. The layout was informal with the nurse's desk in the middle and surrounded by patient rooms. The wooden doors were a lively brown and the walls were blue, pink or white.

Some of them were gorgeous, a term I don't use lightly. One nurse resembled Stacy Keibler. Stacy Keibler
My favorite looked a bit like Jessica Biel.
Jessica Biel

I can think of five others who I’d consider hot, and one in a world of her own. They probably all thought I was a nervous, quiet dork. That goes double for Biel, who I had a crush on for the next two years. (The actual Jessica Biel jumped to #1 on my Top Five List, and has since traded back and forth with Jessica Alba.) And to think that she had to measure my vomit, urine and poop daily. If I got another crack at it now I know I’d act cooler around them. Years of female scorn have trained me. A couple shots of vodka wouldn’t hurt, either.

An older nurse, Racecar, adored me because I reminded her of her son. She sometimes stole Biel’s shift, which angered me. Racecar grew on me, though. She treated me like her own child, once even holding my hand through one of the more painful experiences of my life.

Keep reading: Fix Me (Part II of IV)

Leia Mais…

Monday, February 4, 2008

Their Perfect Legacy

Boston Herald 2008 Patriots coverDuring the Giants final drive I looked at my dad and said, “If the Patriots keep blowing opportunities, they’re going to lose this game.” They let an interception slip through their hands and let Eli slip out of a critical sack. They lost the game because of these and other missed opportunities, as well as a relentless Giants pass rush.

I don’t know how the Patriots will bounce back from last night’s Super Bowl loss. I doubt they, or any other team, will ever again go 16-0 in the regular season. This was their one chance to go down as an elite team in American sports history. It would’ve been the pinnacle of success – an undefeated season. Even if they win another Super Bowl they may always think, “What if.” They’ve already won three, and a fourth championship will still be just a fourth championship. It won’t be perfection. I think they’ll be sick about this loss forever.

For the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, it would’ve been better if they had never gone perfect and hadn’t reached the Super Bowl. Losing one looks so much worse than not making it. If they had won they would’ve been viewed as one of the best quarterbacks and head coaches ever, respectively. That will have to wait, if it happens at all.

People will downplay the Patriots' 18-1 season, maybe even calling them chokers. I think that is unfair. Winning 18 straight before losing the last game of the season is an incredible feat. If they had lost their only game earlier, they would've been considered one of the best NFL teams ever. Now, they're not even in the running. It's funny how the placement of that single loss changes everything.

I commend the Patriots for providing such a memorable and exciting football season. I watched many of their games, and they either blew teams away putting up incredible numbers, or went down to the wire with each play as intense as the last. If nothing else, they were fun as hell to watch.

Leia Mais…