By Cristina Rodriguez
I'm a 30-year-old non-Hodgkin's lymphoma fighter. It's not all I am, but it's all I'm focused on at the moment. The purpose of my blog, lymphomamaniac, is manifold.
I want to record this experience, not just for myself, but for anyone who can relate or learn from my experience. I want to let people know that cancer can be funny and cancer is not politically correct. Why should I care about cancer's feelings? Cancer sucks and I'm going to kick its butt.
For the past two weeks, I've been traveling back and forth 3 1/2 hours each way to Houston. MD Anderson has been my destination. In that short time, it has literally become like my second home, which is the biggest surprise for me.
When my oncologist told me he was referring me to MD Anderson, he might as well have said he was sending me to jail. I thought to myself, "MD Anderson?! That place is all cancer-y and sad!"
I knew for sure it was going to be depressing, smelling like a hospital, with white-washed walls and floors from top to bottom. There would be mean nurses with squeaky white shoes and way too many sad patients with bald heads and sunken faces. It was definitely going to be horrible.
Two weeks in Houston!
My first contact with anybody from MD Anderson was by phone. She called to schedule my first appointment with my new specialist. To my surprise she was super sweet and helpful. She was the one to break the news that I'd be spending at least a week or more in Houston for my initial evaluation.
"What?," I exclaimed. "Are you serious? Why?" I asked.
Turns out, I'd be going through a variety of lovely medical tests so my new doctor could make a more informed decision on how to proceed with the best treatment, and the results would take at least that long to come back. They basically needed me at their beck and call, so I needed to stay in Houston.
I received an email shortly after that call with all the information I would need to get to MD Anderson. I also got my medical record number, which I have since found out is basically your second name at the center. They always ask me to verify it and I can never remember it.
I then received a call from a nice young woman from Patient Services who let me know she'd be the first person I'd be meeting when I arrived.
Coffee, fish tanks and smiles
Upon arriving at MD Anderson with no problems because of the excellent driving directions, the valet greeted us with a smile and happy attitude. To my father's pleasant surprise, they all spoke Spanish. As I stepped foot for the first time into MD Anderson, I instantly noted the feel and the atmosphere in the lobby.
There was a cheerful lady directing everyone to the right elevator and floor. I obviously was wearing a big question mark on my face, and she immediately came to my aid. She asked me what area I was looking for and knew without hesitation where to direct me.
The lobby smelled of fresh gourmet coffee from the cute, little cafe, nothing like a hospital. I could also smell some kind of mouth-watering food and I later discovered a Starbucks and Chik-Fil-A located right down the hallway.
There was not a white wall or floor in sight. Instead, calming shades of blue and aqua covered the walls, lush plants adorned the lobby and there were sofas everywhere dotted with cushy, inviting chairs.
There were huge, beautiful aquariums filled with tropical fish entertaining the children. Most of all, I noticed the people, the patients sitting and walking around. These people were laughing.
Smiling faces, no frowns, nobody seemed sad. Sure, lots of them were bald as I expected, but they wore their baldness loud and proud -- a symbol of their fight and determination.
I instantly felt a unique sense of belonging and comfort I hadn't felt since I started this battle. Suddenly, being among so many people who know what cancer "feels" like, I felt proud to be a part of this club.
I took my designated elevator up to the sixth floor: next stop, the Lymphoma/Myeloma Center where I found more aquariums, cushy chairs and smiling people. I made my way to the reception desk to check in and I heard him.
There was a man loudly singing a happy little tune. I think my mouth dropped when I saw him. I hope it didn't, but I think it did.
A bald, older man sitting in a wheelchair, with the frailest frame I'd ever seen was singing. His skin was a sickly shade of green and he had a few lone white hairs sporadically sticking out of his head here and there, yet his giddy attitude and presence put a huge smile on my face.
I smiled one of those stupid, mouth-open, toothy smiles that you smile when you see a cute baby or something. He was patiently waiting for his turn in the line to speak to the receptionist and he had no idea what an impression he'd just made on me.
I realized this was the place I'd been looking for and I'd finally arrived.
No squeaky white shoes
They didn't take half as long to call me back as I'd expected and my dad barely had a chance to try his hand at one of the many half-started puzzles on the coffee tables.
My doctor's nurse was not mean and did not have squeaky, white shoes. She was a breath of fresh air with a warm smile and a very infectious laugh. It was apparent that she genuinely loves her job and was happy to be there.
My doctor's assistant was the next person I met and he was equally as pleasant. He asked me all kinds of questions and took notes furiously like he was studying for his final exam.
Everyone from the receptionist, to the nurse and the physician's assistant repeated to me how amazingly talented my doctor is. I took comfort in the fact that, apparently, my doctor is not only the head of the lymphoma department but he's the head of the lymphoma department at the best cancer treatment center in the world. That makes him a pretty big deal.
I had the best oncologist in my hometown and now I had the best lymphoma doctor in the world. God had provided me with only His best. My doctor turned out to be just as intelligent as they'd all claimed. He was genuinely concerned with my well-being and spoke to me with all the honesty and clarity I so desperately needed to hear.
The biggest plus was, he also spoke fluent Spanish and was able to answer all of my father's questions with ease. This was huge for me since it's hard enough for me to understand what's happening, let alone translate all the medical jargon for my parents to understand. Amazing.
I left that day with a completely new outlook on MD Anderson. Not only had I been completely wrong about what it would be like, I found myself liking being there.
I was actually looking forward to the next time I'd get to visit. I was looking forward to being among "my people." I was looking forward to having Starbucks and Chik-Fil-A at my disposal. I was looking forward to exploring the beautiful outdoor patios and gardens on every floor.
This was definitely a very far cry from jail. It's turned out to be my safe haven away from home.
Did I mention the free, high-speed wi-fi -- great for blogging on the go? I heart MD Anderson.