by Hugh Gilmore
Fox Chase Cancer Center in Burholme is like a magical kingdom where the lame, the halt and the afflicted go to be treated as ordinary human beings. The transformation begins as you enter the grounds. You drive along a short winding road bordered by grass and trees and come around a curve to a stop sign to see the human-scaled, modern-but-lovely main building.
There is no negative magnificence to it. No “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair.” Nothing cathedral-like to remind you that medicine is mighty and you are insignificant.
At this point you make a sharp U-turn and enter the parking garage, make a sharp left, go 30 feet, make a sharp right now see you’re at at the end of a city-block-long garage. The garage is lit, but dark and your eyes must adjust. You cruise forward, looking for a space, but everything seems taken. You drive up to the next level and that too is filled. As is the next one. And that’s when you think: “Do this many people have cancer?”
I’m amazed. I thought I was the only one. I thought I was a special, rare case. Look at all these cars! And so many out- of-state license plates? This is the gathering point, the jamboree, After all, Fox Chase Cancer Center is among the top places in the world. They do cutting-edge work here. I start letting go of the absurd notion that the whole purpose of this place is to cure just me, good old me, our boy HG, so I can go on living with my wife and son and friends and family. I’m suddenly brimming with curiosity to see what the place looks like.
Still in the garage, I cruise past the second floor and see there’s a pullover lane so people who aren’t ambulatory can be dropped off beside the main lobby’s wide glass doors. I drive on and go up another ramp and finally find a space. I walk through the dark, concrete garage into the building.
I remember the first time I came here. I had enough time to sit in the lobby and people watch. Normal-looking people sat reading the morning paper or scrolling their cellphones. The atmosphere was quiet. Orderly. People walked by. I wonder if any of them have cancer. I see no obvious signs. It’s all so matter of fact. A middle-aged couple walked by. She seemed to be supporting his arm, but it was totally possible that she was the one with cancer. A man in his sixties was wheeled past, pale, and breathing from an oxygen tube. Perhaps he has cancer, I thought. But for all I knew, he, bless him, might have been some other poor soul’s caretaker. It happens.
But the soothing thing I breathed in that day was that I am not alone. I am in a supportive world where I’m not the odd man out. I’m not a freak. I’m not stricken with some unmentionable, shameful affliction. I am not the victim of a bad decision about what to do with the healthy young body I once had.
This past Friday I walked over to the Young Pavilion and took the elevator down to Radiation Oncology. I didn’t want to miss what I call the Breakfast Club. I went to the first desk, showed my barcoded “green card,” received a hospital bracelet and immediately walked down the hall to Waiting Room C to await my scheduled appointment with the IMRT radiation machine known as IR6.
Waiting Room C had been busy for the past two days, the schedule held up by the two snowstorms Philadelphia had last week. Its 14 chairs were filled the past two days. Earlier in the week, perhaps only six seats were taken. Back then, the room had a kind of elevator-etiquette silence to it. People tend to mind their own business, plus most of us are inexperienced about what to say to a cancer patient. As the week went on though, familiarity built up, people relaxed and began talking.
Now, when I enter Waiting Room C I usually call out a casual Good Morning to the room before I turn and enter the changing closet. I find a locker, remove my pants and underwear, put on a hospital gown – open in the front (!) – go back to C and learn to sit like a lady and tuck the gown about my legs so not to give offense.
Sometimes the wait for the radiation team takes minutes. Sometimes more than a half hour. It was a bit boring until a guy I’ll call Bobby came on the scene. After we got to talking, time flew by. When Bobby talks, he soon has the whole room talking. He’s very enjoyable that way.
I’ve started calling it the Breakfast Club. Like the kids in the movie, we’re all here in detention, perhaps for some misdemeanor committed during our pre-cancer days. But now that we’re here, we’re finding that despite our differences we’re all brothers and sisters born under the same Sign of the Zodiac – all feeling the same pinch of the Crab.
To be continued.
Hugh Gilmore is a Chestnut Hill writer and old-book seller who commutes to Fox Chase Cancer Center Mondays through Fridays.