“What Fresh Hell Is This?”

12/09/2014

Dorothy Parker, (1893 –1967), a writer known for wit and wisecracks reportedly asked this question. “What fresh hell is this?” when a phone rang and interrupted her thoughts. It comes to mind after sudden loss. Or a scary diagnosis.

In 2007 our lives were going well. My husband, Phil and I had just celebrated our 50th birthdays. His birthday is one day after mine, same year. I always say that we were cosmic twins and I believed that we were soul mates. We celebrated our September birthdays that year with a trip to China.

He was happy in his career as the top sales person with a small telecommunications company. He planned to work five more years and then retire. I was happy with my business of speaking, writing and corporate training. I served on the board of a charitable foundation and several associations. I was in talks with a literary agent in New York to represent a book that I’d been researching. Our social life was filled with great friends, entertaining and travel. Life was great!

One day Phil came in from work looking dazed. He was having one of the ‘weird’ headaches he’d complained of recently but I could tell it was more than that. I said I would call his doctor. He couldn’t remember the doctor’s name. I asked a few more questions. He couldn’t remember the name of his company or the name of the CEO he had just traveled with all week. He told me that he’d gotten a couple calls on the drive home and couldn’t understand the words the callers were saying. Over his protests, I drove him to the hospital.

Phil’s memory and cognitive function returned to normal within minutes of arriving in the emergency room, as the episode (which we learned was a form of seizure) had passed. The first doctor to see him said that they would run some tests to see what was causing the episodes but it was likely they would not find anything but rather would rule out some of the more serious possibilities. Once that was done we could make an appointment with Phil’s regular doctors to follow up and try to determine the cause.

After hours in the ER the doctor came in and said, “We’ve finished the tests…” Phil and I reached for our coats and began putting them on as the doctor continued. “We found a mass on the brain.” “Brain tumor. “ “Twelve to eighteen months to live.” Words that would change our lives forever. “Mass on the brain.” Fresh hell, indeed.

What seems weird is what we did next. We ordered Chinese food and ate in the ER.

Shock is an amazing thing. Every cell of your body is screaming with the fight or flight hormones that want to swing into action and run or scream but your brain overrides that with a sense of calm, logic and automatic function enabling you to take normal-seeming actions. (This form of psychological shock is an acute stress reaction that’s different from the physical shock that occurs when your body undergoes physical trauma.)

We were stunned by the news and stared wide-eyed at each other and the doctor. Disbelief. He could not possibly have said what we thought we heard. This just could not be happening. The doctor continued talking saying that the neurosurgeon on-call was on his way, Phil would be admitted for further testing before they could be sure the exact type tumor.

Phil continued putting on his coat saying, “No, I’m going on home…” The doctor turned to face me,

“Is this OK with you?” he asked.

Taking that to mean that he was strongly against the idea. I began asking questions. “What happens if he is admitted?” “What happens if we go on home?” “Will we have time to make decisions as to where and what type of treatment to pursue?” Hearing answers to these questions helped us both to switch into logical thinking and move out of the terror of the moment.

Once we determined that Phil would be admitted for further testing we began putting one foot in front of the other so to speak, without looking too far ahead. It was going to take a while to get a room ready and complete the admittance paperwork.

Chinese food seemed like a good idea. Looking back it seems like a strange thing to do immediately upon hearing that you or the person you love most in the world has a tumor on the brain. “Fresh hell” is strange territory to navigate.

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