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The Caregiver Chronicles: Flight for His Life

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After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband Tom was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
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By Judy Overton

overton_helicopter.jpgMy sister Jackie reminded me last weekend that Sunday, Aug. 22, would've been Tom's and my 29th wedding anniversary. We always favored the day we met, May 5, 1977, so it's not a surprise that I needed a reminder. However, as I reflect on our wedding day, I'm reminded of one line in the vows:

        ... in sickness and in health ...

We had just finished dinner on Labor Day six years ago. It had been a quiet weekend. Tom had studied for a class he was taking toward his master's degree and had made some marvelous ribs. I was on the phone with a friend around seven that evening when he entered the kitchen, doubled over in pain. "I need to go to the emergency room," he said, with a lot of effort. I got off the phone and we drove to the hospital about a mile from the house.

We should have called an ambulance.

We reported Tom's symptoms to the receptionist, and were directed to chairs in the busy waiting area. Our wait dragged on for 2-3 hours, during which I made several trips to speak with the receptionist to see when Tom would get into the inner sanctum. She said, "We see the people brought in by ambulance first, and then the most serious cases after that." Isn't urinating blood and having excruciating pain pretty serious, I thought to myself.

After one of these frustrating exchanges, another woman approached the desk and was given a similar line. She walked up to me and said, "Do you know they haven't even offered my husband any ice for his ankle?" The man had been sitting in a wheelchair when we first sat down in the lobby. His ankle was extremely swollen. "What's wrong with your husband?" she asked.

"He's urinating blood," I replied.

"And that's not serious?" she responded.

Tom eventually made it to an emergency room with the temperature of a meat locker. He was not only in great pain, but extremely cold. No one seemed to be tending to him. I know he produced a urine sample after they requested one, but other than a nurse getting his vitals, that was the extent of the check-up.

My timing may be off a bit since six years have passed, but I recall a nurse asking Tom to again give her a urine sample. "I did," he responded curtly. When she saw that it was filled with blood, she looked startled and got into action. "I need to order an MRI," she said. It was around 4 a.m., and Tom would be taken to the MRI room. Since I couldn't settle down in the straight-backed chair, I told him I was going to go home and get some sleep. "Please call me as soon as you know something," I pleaded.

About two hours later, the ringing of the phone awakened me. It was Tom. "They found a large mass, and are transporting me to Hermann Hospital," he said calmly.

 "I'll be right there," I replied. After collecting myself and quickly getting cleaned up, I drove back to the hospital for a short wait. I followed the ambulance to Hermann Hospital, where I'd been many times before as a news photographer awaiting the arrival of a shooting victim or a patient being brought in by the LifeFlight helicopter.

This flight would be for the life of my love -- my very best friend.

Contact Judy Overton at jboverton@mdanderson.org.

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