Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Am a Cancer-Slaying Super Man

Last month I visited Children’s National Medical Center to spend time with pediatric patients, their families, and staff, and sign copies of “Twice.” It seemed like it could be interesting, but there was also a pizza party, and by law I don’t turn down free food.

I was greeted like a rockstar instead of the local writer who will soon sell out of the first print run, albeit a small batch. I wondered if everyone on the pediatric unit had been cooped up so long that they thought I was J. K. Rowling (the only other author I can name. I stopped reading once I became too old for Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT program.)

Visiting patients at Children's National Medical Center

My friend, a social worker at Children’s, had already bought copies for the unit and had distributed them to some patients. Others hadn’t yet gotten their copies and were excited to read it.

And so I hung out in the common area as patients and their parents came in and out to grab a slice and chat. Some in treatment, some past treatment, and some waiting for a bone marrow match so they can finally begin. Then I visited individual rooms.

One girl had a heart condition and had been stuck in the ICU for a crazy amount of time, like two months, though you wouldn’t know it by her crazy-high spirits. She wanted to start reading “Twice,” and made a deal with her dad that after one hour of homework, she could dive in.

Two girls were having a slumber party, despite one having a separate room down the hall. They hadn't met before cancer, yet their diseases forged an inseparable bond. It made me think about two patients who I went through treatment with who developed a similar friendship, and when one passed away, the other seemed to lose his will to fight. On the other hand, I shunned other cancer people, and watching these two teenage girls made me think I may have missed out.

One kid’s doctor said he’d never seen a patient that close to death and pull through. I was warned that he didn’t talk or smile, and buried his head under covers when nurses entered (unless his nurse was Biel, I imagine). I walked into his dark room, the sunlight blocked by curtains. “Have you ever had a trach [tube for breathing] before,” he asked upon my entering.

“Can’t say that I have,” I said

“It sucks.”

“Ben survived cancer twice and wrote a book about it,” Social Worker fortunately chimed in before this eighteen-year-old made me pee myself.


Social Worker handed him my book.

He mouthed the title and then looked up. “I’m excited to read it,” he said.

Social Worker had told me the boy was a Cowboys fan, so I inscribed in his book, “I have Miles Austin on my fantasy team, so I’ll let it slide this time.”

The boy chuckled. After leaving, Social Worker said, “I’ve never seen him laugh before.”

That brings me to my visit with J-Heavy, a nineteen-year-old bone cancer patient who had never completed reading a book before. He hadn’t yet finished “Twice,” either, because he didn’t want to read past the point in the book that mirrored his current treatment. He loved it, proclaiming it his favorite book. I didn’t believe him until he showed me his graffitied window. I was to J-Heavy what Rocky Balboa had been to me, and I was blown away. My book inspired J-Heavy at a seemingly life-changing level. I was touched, which is unusual for a borderline sociopath like myself.
Visiting patients at Children's National Medical Center

I entered Children’s not knowing what to expect. It was not difficult as some suspected it would be, but rather extremely rewarding. I would love to do similar events—pizza isn’t even required. Take notice, my readers in the medical community, and book me while you can before I become J.K. Rowling.

Postscript: I just realized J.K. Rowling is a woman. Whoops, bad analogy!

Keep reading:
I Am a Cancer-Slaying Super Man: Part II


Colima said...

I am a nurse at Children's. I was Terrell's nurse and you described him to a "T". If T didn't keep the sheets over his head the whole time you were in the room you knew you had "made it!" He was so very special and I don't just say that because I love adolescents. Thank you for writing about one of my personal heroes.
Colima, RN

Benjamin Rubenstein said...


Thank you for sharing that about Terrell. Very cool to hear things like that.