This is the fourth part of our story as written by Patrick Durand.
After we informed our girls of the new diagnosis, I immediately felt relief from the constant tension I had felt over the preceding weeks. I had been so worried about how they would react to the news, particularly Emily, since she was in the Marines and could not see Melissa everyday like her sister, Abbey. But they both handled it beautifully and quickly became part of our support team. They wanted to hear the news as we heard it, they wanted all the details.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that preceding week – the week of the biopsy – was rock bottom in this experience (at least for me, so far). Things would get better from that point, although we still had one more curveball to swing at. That curve ball was zipping towards me.
We finally had a treatment plan for Melissa’s cancer. According to Dr. Thomas, Melissa’s cancer was a very aggressive form, however, a drug that specifically targeted that type of cancer (suppressor) had just been approved by the FDA for limited circumstances – one of those circumstances was Stage IV in which no prior treatment had been administered. Dr. Thomas told us we were lucky. We read news articles about this miracle drug; Several Doctors indicated that the impact of this new drug was a once in a lifetime occurrence. This drug added 16 months to the average lifespan of a cancer patient.
A week later Melissa had her first infusion. To our delight, everything went smoothly. We had our very own infusion room. Our nurse, Nancy, explained the drugs as she administered them. She was an experienced infusion nurse, she explained how the process had changed dramatically over the years and that it’s not much like we see on TV anymore.
The initial infusions lasted a full day. First, they administered Benadryl. We then waited 30 minutes to check for an allergic reaction. Then came a steroid. Another 30-minute wait. Then the chemo. Wait again. Then suppressor number one. Wait. Suppressor number two. Wait. Then they checked vitals one last time, flushed the port with saline and disconnected.
Over the weeks Melissa’s hair would gradually thin, each time she drained the tub after a bath, it would be coated with her fallen hair. She made the decision not to shave her head. Her loving hairdresser would trim her hair at her home, so Melissa didn’t feel embarrassed by exposing her scalp in a public place. In our free time we shopped for hats. Melissa would try a hat on, look in the mirror, and then turn to me to ask me what I thought. I would give her my yay or nay. Although she thinks she had lost her splendor, to me and my girls, Melissa had never looked more beautiful.
As far as the first cycle of chemo, the most annoying thing was the timing. By the time treatment was underway, it was October. Breast cancer awareness month. It seemed PINK was EVERYWHERE. Everything we looked at was PINK! Every product had PINK ribbons. Ridiculous sayings like: “Save the ta-tas”; “Keep Calm and Love Boobies”; “ Save the Hooters” ; Like the biggest concern with breast cancer was what happened to the breast! Billboards were plastered with PINK. Clothes had cute little PINK ribbons. TV commercials were “proud sponsors of breast cancer awareness month”. Football games intermixed PINK with their colors. Websites had PINK ribbons. PINK, PINK, EVERYWHERE! EVERYWHERE PINK RIBBONS! It was as if the world was sending us a message “just in case you forgot, YOU HAVE CANCER!”. To this day, neither one of us has worn a pink ribbon. Not one piece of clothing, not jewelry, not even a sticker on our cars. We’ve now been through three Octobers, we still hate it. We understand the purpose is to raise awareness for a good cause, it’s bigger than us, we need the research. The timing was just horrible.
But other than our hatred of anything pink, we adjusted to our new normal and the weeks became routine. Infusion days shortened as the nurses grew confident that Melissa would not have adverse reactions to the treatment. After infusion, we typically drove to some northern Minneapolis suburb to watch Abbey’s cross country meets. We’d make frequent stops to admire the fall colors – they were amazing that year.
The really weird thing was we were actually having a ton of fun together. We had pretty much shut out the rest of the world and bonded together. We stared death in the face and gave it the finger. We laughed like goofy teenagers again. We made light of our predicament. We joked of who would die first. (relating to a King of Queens episode in which Doug tells Carrie “You can’t out die me!”) We spent every minute together. We even found a rural cemetery between our house and church and picked out plots, but not in a sad “you’re gonna die” way, but rather in a beautiful “we’ll be together forever” way. We binged on all those NetFlix shows we couldn’t comprehend before. Besides the cancer, things were actually going quite well!
One weekend early in November, Emily surprised us with a visit home. Her unit had a “96er” (four days off) because of Veteran’s Day; she and Abbey had concocted a plan. We spent a glorious weekend together – I was so happy that Emily was finally able to spend time with her mother and see firsthand that Melissa was doing quite well. The following Monday was to be Emily’s final night home – and we planned to eat at her favorite restaurant, Benihana, that evening. I had reservations for 6:00.
I had a long work meeting that day, the commute home was unusually long because of the season’s first snow storm; it was a doozy. By the time I got home we were already late for our reservation. More than six inches of freshly fallen snow covered our driveway; I decided I should snow blow before dinner. Not as much for my benefit, but for my neighbor, Bill. He was also battling cancer and occasionally they had to make a late night hospital visit. Over the years Bill and I had assisted each other with our driveways – when I was out of town he always made sure our driveway was clear for Melissa. Now it was my turn to help him.
The snow was wet and heavy, so dense that it routinely clogged my blower. Each time it clogged I would turn off the auger, get off my tractor, punch my hand down the chute, and then resume. The snow was so compact that one punch usually didn’t do the trick. I punched my hand through the chute with all my might several times before it would finally break through. This went on and on; it took me considerably longer than I expected, which made us even more behind schedule.
On my final pass, as I reached the bottom of the driveway, the blower, once again, clogged. I hopped off my tractor, jammed my fist through the chute as I had done all evening. But this time, something was different. There was very little resistance, my hand shot right through and I heard a strange grinding sound. “I did not just do that.” I thought. I glanced down at the blower and, sure enough, it was still spinning. I had neglected to turn off the PTO! But, oddly, I didn’t feel a thing – perhaps my hand had simply bounced off the auger without causing much damage. I pulled my hand out and looked at it. It was bad. My familiar hand now looked like something from a horror movie. It was severely disfigured, the skin ripped and shredded, and all my fingers were going the wrong direction, my pinky barely hanging on. Wide open lacerations – I could see right down to the bones – or what was left of them.
I yelled “SON OF A B*TCH!!” as loud as I could. I hopped back on my tractor and raced up the driveway. Melissa and Emily were already outside waiting to go to dinner. I told Melissa to get me a towel to wrap my hand and that we needed to get to the hospital.
Melissa drove and Emily navigated. Abbey sat behind me in the third row. It was slow going. Wet and snowy. Traffic was still bad because of the slow commute. We hit every single stop light that evening – and with each one my hand hurt worse. It must have taken an hour. I replayed the series of events a million times – the blower plugging, me jumping off the tractor, missing the PTO switch, punching my hand through, looking at it. Over and over again. This is how accidents happen. In the blink of an eye. That’s why they call them accidents…
Except it wasn’t really an accident, it was plain stupidity. My stupidity. A lawn tractor has a seat sensor and will shut down when you dismount it. Strangely, that evening I could distinctly remember the moment I had disabled the safety on my tractor. It was many years ago, my girls were young. Between the girls and our dogs, our yard was always littered with toys. When I mowed the lawn, I was constantly hopping off my tractor to move a toy. Each time I lifted myself from the seat, my tractor would kill. Not only would it kill, it would flood itself because the ignition was cut while it was at full throttle, thus pumping gas into the cylinder. And then I couldn’t get it started again. One sunny day I looked under the seat and observed the two wires leading to it. I unplugged the wires, bridged them together, and wrapped them with black electrical tape. From then on, I could hop off my tractor while it dutifully stayed running. Mowing the lawn in the summer, blowing snow in the winter. Problem solved. For the next fourteen years, it worked perfectly. Never a problem. Until that night. That night – I was the reason for that switch. That night – I was the reason for that decal on my snow-blower which displays a hand, an auger, and a BIG RED NO SIGN. And the word CAUTION! in all capital letters above the graphic. And DANGER! below it. Certainly, I would be nominated for the Darwin Awards of 2014. Stupidity.
Another stoplight. More pain. It was a strange pain, like nothing I’d ever felt before. Of course, I’d never experienced an injury like that either. It wasn’t a sharp pain like the cut of a knife. It wasn’t a deep ache like a broken bone. It was a deep complex pain, deep in the bones, but not from just one area. The only word I could think of at the time to describe it was – dirty. It felt dirty. Perhaps because the pain was coming from so many different areas, the skin, the bones, the tendons, my brain just didn’t know what to do with all these sensors going off the charts. It couldn’t isolate it. They all colluded to bring me this deep, dirty pain.
Of course I knew all along it was wrong to be using my fist to clear my blower. How could I not with all the warnings? But I could never find anything that worked better than my fist. I tried using a shovel. I tried a stick. My fist always worked the best. I could jam my fist in there so quickly – it was the perfect size. Nothing worked better.
Another stoplight. Despite knowing how bad it was. And how stupid I was. I was not without hope. I had heard somewhere that losing a finger these days isn’t so bad. The medical geniuses could easily reattach a finger, provided you got to the hospital right away and keep the severed finger cold. And my fingers were not actually severed. I would probably be OK.
Another stoplight. Now it feels like it’s totally engulphed in flames. Yup, that’s what it feels like. Flames. My bones are burning. The skin is melting off, dripping from my hand. It’s pulsating like one of Fred Flintstone’s injuries. Red, white. Big, small. Throughout the drive, Melissa would yell back to me “keep your hand above your head!” I would yell back “I’m so STUPID! How could I have been so stupid?”
I thought about all the ways it could have been avoided. If only I’d cleared the snow after dinner. I should have left my meeting early. I should have cancelled the reservation because of the snow storm. I could have easily called to reschedule the reservation. I should have just blew a strip, not the whole damned driveway. Why did I care so much about a F-ing reservation! Why didn’t I enable the safety IN THE WINTER? I never thought of that. Why didn’t I think of that before? Why didn’t I find something that would work as well as my hand? One slight change – anywhere in the day could have changed the outcome. My brain was trying to find something – like Superman flying around the world to reverse time. But nothing would change it. My hand was a mess. It was all my fault. Nobody to blame but myself.
Finally, we arrived at the hospital, we ran into the emergency room. It was packed, standing room only. I’ve heard many stories of people waiting in the emergency room for hours before they were seen, I feared I was going to be one of them that night. The pain was getting more intense by the second. I approached the admittance desk:
“I just hurt my hand really bad”
“let me see it”
I unraveled the towel.
“URGENT!” she yelled and whisked me down the hall.
Once I was seated in the emergency room I started to shake uncontrollably. They draped warm shock blankets over my body, hooked me up with IVs, and kept asking me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. It was all 10s. Then gradually I started feeling better, more relaxed. I stopped shaking. The pain came down. Melissa sat in front of me watching everything. I was so grateful she was there with me. The ER Doctor told me “Don’t worry, I know the perfect surgeon for you. He’s been doing hand surgeries for 40 years. In fact he’s doing one right now, another snowblower accident.”
A nurse brought out a pair of scissors and informed me she was going to cut off my t-shirt. “Can’t I just take it off?” I asked her. “No, we have to cut it off. Policy”. I wouldn’t have cared except it was a Marine Corps t-shirt. I now have many Marine t-shirts, but that was my very first one – given to me by Emily when she had enlisted. On the back was a picture of “Chesty” the Marine Corps bulldog mascot with the title Devil Dogs – First to Fight. I was wearing it because it was November 10th. The Marine Corps birthday. And now also the anniversary of my injury.
The last thing I remember from the evening was Emily standing over me – sobbing – telling me how much she loved me, and how she didn’t want anything to happen to me. She kept saying it over and over. In my drugged state I didn’t say much, but I was confused as to why she was sobbing. I had only hurt my hand – I wasn’t going to die. I later learned that I had just come out of a three-hour surgery and my girls had been in the chapel praying for me the whole time. It was 3AM.
The next morning my first visitor was my friend Jeff. Jeff and I serve on the worship team together and have become good friends. I was quite surprised to see him that morning and asked him how he knew of my injury. He told me that our Pastor had sent him a message that evening. Then Melissa and the girls arrived. Melissa told me that there were a lot of people praying for me. I realized that I had felt the power of those prayers that night. Or maybe it was the drugs. Either way, despite the tragedy, I had this strange peace through it all.
One of my neighbors arrived. He said “I don’t understand how this could happen, my tractor shuts down when I get off the seat” I looked at him, debated whether to come clean. And then expounded how I had disabled the safety. “Well, that explains it.” We laughed together, but secretly I hated the fact that I would have to explain my own foolishness for the rest of my life.
That morning, as I lay in my hospital bed contemplating the recent events – I realized one thing: My girls will never forget that evening. Now, I don’t consider myself a man’s man. I’m far too sensitive and reflective. And I was not always the principled father figure I should have been. I didn’t always set the best example of how to deal with adversity. But with this situation, I knew my girls were watching. I knew I had to be strong. I knew I had to stay positive. We can’t predict the battles our children will face. Perhaps one day, they would find strength in how I handled this moment. I decided right then – I would not complain. I would accept the blame (it was solely mine, anyways). I would make light of my stupidity. And I would find my path to recovery.