Nelson isn’t a particularly saintly sounding name, when one thinks of saints.
And he doesn’t look particularly saintly. He would just be another face in the crowd on a busy street. Nothing strikes out about him and he doesn’t wear a halo. You might peg him for an accountant or a lawyer.
But the man is a saint among us.
About a month ago, in my sleep, I felt what can only be described as an explosion of pain in the back of my head. It dissipated, was dull by the next morning but still there. Over the next two weeks the headache was ever present, it got worse, it got better, but it never truly went away. That’s when my oncologist decided to order an MRI.
“There is nothing in your brain”, that’s what I heard several times over and over from family and friends. I love people for telling me things like this. It doesn’t make me mad or frustrated. It means to me that this is what they wish for me. They say it out of love and protectiveness. But one thing I didn’t share with anyone was this – I had physically lost my ability to write. I was writing down a recipe and it all looked like chicken scratch. I didn’t want to scare anyone so I didn’t say anything. But it was then I knew there was something in my brain.
The MRI happened and I went to my cousin’s place right after. When the phone rang I knew. “Are you close by?” my oncologist said, “They found two tumors. I don’t think it will be an emergency surgery but you need to come to urgent care right now”. Thank God I wasn’t alone. Thank God for cousins. Thank God for surgeons. And thank God for cousins that are surgeons. If she’ll let me I’d love to sing her praises to you at some point I will 😉
So after leaving a puddle of tears on the floor of her apartment she drove me to urgent care. I was in shock, barely present. I was reeling from the news that I expected to get. Note to Self: expecting to get bad news doesn’t ever soften the blow of actual said news.
The next 6 hours at Memorial Sloan Kettering Urgent Care went something like this, first a:
Nurse with needles
Radiation Oncologist (Who was super cute. I mean I’m just sayin, didn’t hurt things).
Neurosurgeon Resident who literally walked in put Purell on his hands and said “You’re borderline.” and walked out. I’m still trying to decipher that message.
Neurologist who literally poked me with sharp wooden sticks asked me the year and then asked me to remember the following words that I remember to this day: Red Tree Courage. He asked me if I remembered them later. They have become something of a mantra to me. If I ever see him again I’m going to shout “RED TREE COURAGE!!!”. He would probably want to do another exam on me. (Note to Reader: Please feel free to yell Red Tree Courage at me at any point).
ER doc again, just to recap that I’m in the ER and that I’ll be admitted for observation.
Waiting some more.
At some point in the evening I was admitted.
I am someone who likes to be alone. So when I got time to myself I was able to process what was happening and found some equilibrium. I also talked to one of my most precious spiritual friends and she grounded me as she always does.
The next day is when Nelson happened. This unassuming man walked into my room, introduced himself to me, my cousin and my husband and proceeded to answer any and every question we had for him. He stayed with us and let us talk out our concerns and fears. I even talked to him about when the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. He had read it and gave me his opinion. When Nelson left we all felt better. I didn’t know he was a saint at that point, just a kind, wonderful doctor who came in to allay our fears.
A week later, after meeting the attending neurosurgeon who would do my surgery, I had neurosurgery to remove two tumors from my brain. The chances of recurrence without surgery were too high to risk. And also just as important, I am too young and cute to be walking around with tumors in my brain.
The morning of the operation my mother washed my hair and prayed. It was so beautiful. People think times of hardship as being all bad. If not for the hardship I would not have had that moment with my mother.
Fast forward. I’m in the operating room just hanging out on the table with the surgical team all around me going about their business. There was 70’s music playing in the background. Just another day in the office for them, which was comforting to me. And lo and behold, in walks Nelson.
He had told me he most likely would not be in my surgery. But seeing him walk in was a huge relief. “I’m so happy you are here”, I said to him. “Good, I’m glad”, he said. It wasn’t too long after that all the happy drugs kicked in and I was floating on a cloud somewhere.
The surgery was a success, but not without complication. I apparently developed a rare complication that involved bleeding in my brain. They had to stop the surgery and almost had to put things on hold until the next day. Luckily they were able to continue.
Now, Nelson sounds like one swell guy already, I know, but here is where his sainthood kicked in. On his day off, the day ( I emphasize, on his day off) before I was discharged he came to see me and how I was doing. He checked the sutures on my head and talked to us about the surgery and then he did something absolutely stunning.
“Oh, there is some dried blood on your forehead, I’ll get it off for you”.
He then proceeded to find an alcohol swab and wiped off the dried blood.
Now, you might think this is unremarkable, such a simple act right? He didn’t part the Hudson, he just wiped blood off my head.
Here is how I see it. Here is this surgeon, who does the most delicate and sensitive of surgeries. His hands are attuned to detail and meticulousness. He is also someone with years of schooling at the top universities. He had done his job with my brain and it would have been fine and well if he didn’t come to see me. But he did, on his own time. And while there, had the thoughtfulness and kindness to do the simple task of wiping blood off my head.
A person who expresses compassion in the highest and lowest of tasks, is a saint indeed.