23. Work
Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 01:49PM
Jim Kurtzke

Once Dr. Schenk told me that cancer had not returned, I had little time to relax and celebrate.

After all, wiithin one week in early January 2012, I had surgery to fix my neobladder...a cancer scare....an ER visit to keep my bladder from exploding....removal of my catheter (one of life's joys)...a blood test to measure the effectiveness of medication staving off another embolism...physical therapy to continue rebuilding strength in my body...and a general check-in with Dr. Ditaranto.


There was something else, too. Following this whirlwind, I finally retuned to work. The last time I had worked full days on the job was back in April 2011. I did a little work from home in September, and logged a few hours here and there during December. But those times seemed like short breaks from my normal routine of coping with cancer. Now, I had to reenter the workplace. And it wasn't easy. In fact, it was, and continues to be, extremely hard.

From my perspective, returning to work meant entering an alternate universe. For eight long months, all my thoughts and energies were focused on cancer. The diagnosis. The treatments. The surgeries. The complications. Survival. The long road ahead.

Despite the horribleness of everything, I had left my prior life and entered something different. Certainly not better. But different. I had a new focus (holding onto life), new routine (coping with side-effects), new friends (nurses and cancer patients), and new opportunities to appreciate the joys of daily living (drives in the mountains, lunches with family and friends).

Now, I had to incorporate work back into my life. Not shift my focus from cancer. Rather, expand it. Because cancer and its after effects would continue to be with me. All kinds of thoughts went threw my mind.

What kind of clothes could I wear? With my stomach still tender from surgery, I had been wearing sweat pants for a while now. How should I carry around the personal devices I needed? Would the rest rooms at work be conducive to my new needs? How many hours could I work before fatigue set in? Could my body stand all the running around (it's a metaphor, ok?) from work to medical appointments and back? And, mentally, did I have the energy or desire to think about work matters?

In recovering from cancer treatments and radical surgery, I knew I had to create a new normal for myself. But was my old workplace to be part of that new normal? Time would tell.

Things got off on a good note. When I was at home, I had told very few colleagues of my condition. But most knew something bad was up. Now I was able to visit with folks I hadn't seen in quite a while. And that was mostly a good experience. People sharing good wishes, relief and support.

Also, I was fortunate in that my old job was waiting for me. While I was away, my colleague, Patti, expanded her duties to perform mine as well. And now she was eager to give them back. She was great in debriefing me and easing my transition. Indeed, for weeks, I had her continue to run team meetings because she was more plugged in than I was.

At the management level in the business, there had been a lot of turnover since I last worked there. So I had to get to know a whole new set of people. Not knowing my condition, some came up to me and said, "Love your bag!" Oh well. Relationships often start on odd notes.

But then things started to go south. In meetings, I noticed how much, and how little, things had changed. People would talk in jargon and rattle off a series of acronyms that mystified me. For a while, I could ask the dumb, obvious question -- excuse me, but what the hell are you talking about? -- and it dawned on me how the English language gets so perverted in a corporate environment. And how little the things they were talking about really mattered.

Case in point: I asked folks what had transpired during my time away. Know what some talked about? Internal politics. Turf wars. Personality conflicts. I sat. I listened. And I couldn't have cared less. I was supposed to shift my mindset and care about things like that? I don't think so. Sounds corny, but once you've had cancer, your priorities are forever changed. And there's very little room for the bs some people engage in at work.

Fortunately, other things needed my attention. Like planning out how many meetings I could attend without using the rest room...making sure I took my bag to each meeting...determining where were the best places to use the restroom...and making sure I gave myself enough time in between. My neobladder was still on the clock, if you will, so I always had to have in mind what my time intervals were.

Added to all that, of course, was expanding my mental focus to the substance of work. What needed to be done? Who's going to do it? And could drama and internal politics be kept to a minimum? For a while, the substance of my job did re-engage my chemo-fried brain. My job involves shaping communications on mortgage and housing-related issues. And it's interesting stuff to me. Hey, I thought, I remember this part of myself.

But then, reality set in. I couldn't do this anymore. Deep in my heart, I knew it. Maybe it was too early for me to come back. Maybe it was my lack of energy and desire to fight internal battles. Maybe it was just that my future shouldn't include this part of my past. Whatever the cause, I knew I had to sit down with Kate.

She listened. She heard me. She knew where I was coming from. And she gave me perspective: I was still recovering physically and mentally from a life-threatening disease; I had only just begun to adjust to daily life with a neobladder; and I still had lots of medical procedures and milestones in front of me.

Her advice: Stay focused on my health, and introduce no other change in my life. Meaning, stay in my job, and stay there for however long it takes for my medical condition to normalize. Only then could I really think about what kind of work to do going forward. After all, I knew how to do my job, Kate said, just don't get involved in the internal bs. If people interpret this as not caring about my work, then so be it. I had bigger battles to fight.

Now it was time for me to digest what she just said. I was so bummed. Her logic was so rock-solid, I couldn't find a hole in it. I just wish it was a rock-solid argument to go. Instead, I stayed. And it didn't take long for Kate to be proven right.

The surgery in early January definitely made it easier to void my bladder. Obstructions were removed and the openings to my ureters were kept open. But in the following weeks, it gradually became more difficult to voidr. The mucus production factory was back in operation, and with it my need for cathing. Cathing then led to inflamation in the urinary canal, which of course required more cathing. Vicious cycle.

Because I was still on blood thinners, I couldn't take anti-inflamatories to calm things down. All this led to one day at work, in mid-February, when I tried to cath myself in the rest room. I had barely inserted the catheter when blood came gushing out. Lots of it. My heart started to race. Holy God, the catherter must have torn something in there! What should I do now?

I needed to stop the bleeding. This took several minutes, which felt like hours. Good God, I thought, what had I done? Blood was all over the place. Once the bleeding slowed, I set about clearning up. Through a combination of what I had in my bag and the rest room, I managed to return the area to at least presentable.

Then I had to leave work. Fast. But where should I go? To Dr. Schenk's office? If so, which one? Reston or Loudoun? To the hospital? Same question. Which location? Without a firm answer in my head, I grabbed my things, rushed to my car, and sped out of the garage. Sweating, heart racing, I thought, let's try Schenk's Reston office. It was closest to my work, about 15 minutes away.

But when I got there, the office was closed. Damn. It was lunchtime. What next? I went back to my car and dialed Schenk's cell phone. He had been generous enough to give it to me. And I thought I would use it only in case of emergency. Well, this sure felt like a frigging emergency! Fortunately, because my car has Bluetooth, I could dial and talk while I sped away, now towards his Loudoun office. Another 20 miinutes away.

A nurse answered, saying she was now with Schenk in surgery at Loudoun Hospital. I told her what happened. She relayed the message to Schenk. He said go to his Loudoun office, and he would meet me there. (The office and hospital being close to each other.) When I got there, the staff had already been alerted, they took me into a room, and they quickly prepped me. Schenk arrived a few minutes later.

He was focused. He slung off his medical bag, barely said a word, grabbed a catheter, and inserted it all the way into my bladder, pushing hard once he met resistance, breaking through the inflamed area. I would need to keep this in for a week so things could calm down. Then he instructed Karen, his nurse, to bag the catheter. And he was off. Five minutes max. Boom.

Karen then strapped me up, and I headed home, with my blood-soaked clothes in tow. Lots of thoughts went through my head. God, I hate catheters. And I have to keep this one is for an entire week! Yuck. I probably need to tell my parents and family about this. How can I do that without alarming them? How should I take care of work-related matters? But my overriding thought was, Kate was right. I really did still have a lot of medical stuff in front of me. I only wish I knew what was next.

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