Maybe it's been nearly half a century since it happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It's like a touchstone, since earlier memories have faded from consciousness. Eight years old and diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma which, translated, means cancer of the soft tissue. I never heard my parents speak the word "cancer" out loud - never. They simply said, "You have a growth that needs to be removed." What I didn't know was what that meant, what lay ahead.
The oncology specialists at All Children's Hospital were grave and pointed: "She'll won't survive three months; the disease is rare; there are only two documented cases in medical history and both died; there's no cure." I can only imagine the devastation my parents felt hearing this news. Even so, not one of the children in our family of seven would've guessed it.
Much later, I learned that privately they argued over practicing faith healing vs. traditional medicine. But outwardly, they projected brave faces and hopeful hearts. They agreed to pursue both avenues of healing, in tandem. Doctors were permitted to do what they must - multiple surgeries, experimental chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant - while they fearlessly petitioned every church, denomination, and minister in our small community, asking my name be held up in prayer.
My mother begged the chief surgeon, C. Everett Koop (who, much later, became Surgeon General of the U.S.) say a prayer before operating. He agreed. I was a guinea pig, a literal experiment, a race against odds as a team of doctors attempted to remove the tumor, along with my lymph system up to the aorta. Next came trial levels of chemotherapy.
Photos reveal me shrinking to the size of a bony, frail bird and losing my strawberry blonde hair. I remember the arduous five hour drive to the hospital on a bumpy turnpike, feeling the rise of anxiety and nausea over the impending uncertainty of what was ahead, balling up my little fists to fight off the sickening ether mask, the sour smell of my hospital room, and the sheer white curtains, always pulled shut. Visitors never came, except the hospital priest - we were so far from home.
Yet, out of the horror an angel miraculously emerged. A young nurse, wearing a beautiful, intricately pleated and starched white cap, took special interest in me. As twilight set in, she would take me in her arms and rock and sing to me, occupying the sole rocking chair in the pediatric ward. I remembered her name for years and years. Now it's faded from my memory.
At the end of three months, I was still alive. Three years later, I was beginning to thrive. At the five year mark, the doctors pronounced me cured.
I think about the people who are the obvious heroes in my story: the doctors, who made such careful, calculated decisions and fearlessly executed them; my parents, who symbiotically imparted the ambient message that I was okay. But, it was the nurse who carved time out of her hectic schedule to hold, rock, and sing to me - in a place where every baby and child rightfully held equal claim on her attentions - she's the quiet hero I remember most.