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Another Fishing Trip

by Marian Wilson, RN

Egret, by Michael Cox
Egret
by Michael Cox

Ray came to my unit, a man of the mountains who liked hunting and Harleys. When he was diagnosed with leukemia, he was angry and impossible to please. Never mind that I had chemotherapy to give, nursing assessments to do, and charting to complete, he just wanted me to fetch a decent cup of coffee.

"What are you trying to do? Kill me?" he'd yell, after taking a sip that was always too strong or too weak.

Ray knew little of medicine. With every dose he'd ask suspiciously, "What is this crap?" He'd eye the pill cup in my hand, curse, and say, "I'm not taking it." He'd compare my explanations with what other nurses said, trying to catch any inconsistencies. Hostile insults didn't make Ray very popular. Some staff members avoided being assigned to his case.

Weeks of chemotherapy kept Ray confined to his room. There, sheltered from infections, he showed signs of mellowing. He confided that he had not gone far in school and was embarrassed by poor reading skills. When I'd explain a new medication, he eked out respect saying, "I guess you girls know what you're doing." Over time, I could joke with him, often about his excessive coffee intake, and he stopped questioning every detail of his treatment.

As he suffered through side effects of nausea and fevers, Ray's dream was to be well enough to venture to the river. A new fishing pole hung in a corner of his hospital room. We snapped a picture as he practiced casting in the halls.

Soon after the pole arrived, Ray started consolidation therapy. His disease was in remission. The doctor explained that for long-term survival he would need to go through more high doses of chemo. Like most patients, this was a hard concept for Ray to grasp. He was feeling well. Why should he endure more treatments? His doctor told him that although there were no signs of leukemia lurking in his bone marrow, it could still return. Aggressive treatment now meant better odds for a cure.

After deciding to go through with the therapy, Ray asked more than once, "Do you think I'm gonna make it? Or is this chemo gonna get me?"

"You're a tough guy, Ray," I said. "You got through this once, you'll do it again." After all, Ray's muscle shirts revealed tattooed, solid arms. Since his first admission, his appearance had changed from long, stringy hair and shaggy beard, to a neat crew cut. He looked strong. Despite reassurances, Ray knew the risks and prepared for the worst.

He spoke of his daughter more and worked on mending their rocky relationship. His ex-wife was often at his side. He held her hand on their walks down the hallway, always stopping to talk at the nurses' desk. I noticed a kinder Ray, saying "please" and "thank you" and "I hate to bother you girls."

The fever came on suddenly. Ray's body had no white cells to fight the invasion, thanks to the chemo's effects. Before we knew it, Ray was shipped to the intensive care unit. In septic shock, he lingered. The people who loved him, including now some of the nursing staff, cried over his swollen, purple body. A few days later, he died.

My co-workers talked about how sad it was. Some agonized over the role they played, sending the deadly chemo into Ray's body. Still, when I'd pass that picture of him smiling with his fishing pole, now taped to our walls, I felt his joy.

When I remember Ray, I don't think of him bloated with steroids and fighting for his life. I don't think of his complaints about the coffee and the food. Behind a mask of profanity and anger sprang a true, sweet spirit, just waiting to be known. So when I think of Ray, I see the transformation possible in each of us.

Marian Wilson, RN Is a registered nurse living in Idaho with articles, essays, and poetry published in several magazines and e-zines, including L'Intrigue, RN, and Potpourri. She is a columnist for the Spokesman-Review newspaper, focusing on health topics. You can reach her at pobdjw@nidlink.com.

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