Tag Archives: health

Stop Breathing. Now Breathe.

Before I even tell this story–I’m fine. It’s all fine.

Today was such a stupid day to cap off a long long string of stupid days. G had a horrible toothache and had found a dentist who could see him at noon. I’ve been out sick for a couple of days but was finally starting to feel better. Then Carlos said, “My tummy hurts” at bedtime last night.

You know how that sentence turns out. Lots of laundry and not much sleep. So when G and I were deciding how to manage today with a sick kid, we stood over our phones and hashed through the calendars.

“OK,” I said, “I can stay home this morning but I have two things this afternoon that I can’t move or miss–at 1 and 2:30.” He checked his phone. “That will work. I’ve got a few things this morning then dentist at 12:30.” We’d hand off Carlos at noon (Lord willing and the breakfast doesn’t rise).

Everything worked out fine. I logged in to work from the love seat while Carlos had some yogurt and screen time. Carlos got to play in a warm bubble bath until he was wrinkly so that I had time to diagnose form submission problems, send mass emails, post news stories, reschedule appointments. I kept the wheels on the bus and the boy hydrated and the laundry going. Like moms do.

By the time G got home, Carlos was dressed and fed and ready for an uhventure (to the dentist’s office!). I got myself dressed and fed and ready for a follow-up diagnostic mammogram.

The regular one I had on Monday didn’t get the thumbs up from the radiologist. Instead of getting the thin pink envelope in the mail that says, “All good!” I got the call from a very neutral sounding scheduling secretary to come back in for another look. OK. No big deal. Hooray for good insurance and 3D imaging and all of that. All of that stuff I never ever ever want to think about.

It’s weird when you work at the place where you get your healthcare. It’s not anonymous. It’s Monita taking my insurance card and Odessa printing forms and Cathy doing the scheduling. Vickie walks by and Connie is the boss and everyone knows my name. Even in the waiting room, I sat next to the mother of Carlos’ kindergarten teacher. It’s another day at work, except I’m remembering that sometimes it’s not good news.

She positioned my right breast and compressed the plastic plates. I watched the digital pressure reading–30 lbs. I stood calmly, doing as I was told. It’s not that bad, the squeezing. It’s better than not knowing. She steps behind the clear screen and as the imaging arm moves and clicks and whirrs, she says, “Hold your chin up high and breathe….stop breathing.” Three clicks.

As I’m holding it all together and focusing my eyes on a screw on a conduit clamp near the ceiling, everything stops.

Stop breathing. What if this is the first paragraph in the story where I stop breathing? I don’t want to stop breathing.

I tell myself that I’m being dramatic. That this is normal. That every time we upgrade the machinery, I need a new baseline. That I have about a 20% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime.

“And breathe.” She comes out from behind the screen and we move on to the next series of images. She spends more time on my right breast and I start to get suspicious. I let my eyes move to the screen where the digital image is displayed and a giant white constellation burns its way into my heart.

I’m held fast in the machine again and I don’t want to cry but I saw what I saw.

“And (whirr) stop breathing…(three clicks)…and breathe.”

She assured me that the images were going straight to the radiologist, and if he wanted to get an ultrasound they would do that right away, today. This was starting to sound serious. I sat in the waiting room with a copy of Oprah’s gift list that smelled too much like Elizabeth Taylor perfume. And I tried not to think about Christmas next year or this year and what it might look like for my little boy, who loves the tiny tree in his room so much that he falls asleep in its soft glow every night.

Then Molly stuck her head in a different door and called my name. Out in the hall, she said, “We’re going to go ahead and do an ultrasound today.”

As I lay on the table, the computer behind Molly cycled through the screensaver of slides that I publish for the hospital–meetings, recognitions, announcements, reminders. All that stuff I spend so much energy on. All that stuff that fills up my days. I stared at the mural on the wall, a hexagonal window with a white orchid resting on the sill. Molly began clicking and tapping Enter and clicking and dragging and tapping again. Taking the measure of things. That sound that I hadn’t heard since my babies were growing inside.

Then I waited for the doctor to look at whatever Molly had marked. I stared at the picture of an orchid in the picture of a window in a quiet room so that I wouldn’t think about the white constellation inside.

I hadn’t even told G where I was going–he had a toothache. I had a 2:30 meeting to get to. Would I go there, relieved? Would I go there knowing that I had a biopsy scheduled in a few days? Would I not even show up because it’s really hard to care about a meeting when you might have cancer?

Cancer. I started thinking about that quiet wait when I sat in one room while Richard sat in the other to hear The News. I laughed at those old cancer pants (that are still in my closet). I looked down at my plain black pants and then said, “Stop this. You’re being stupid.”

Or you’re not. OK, fine. If this is it and everything in my life is about to be flipped upside down, I’m not giving up. Little Gay will be the first person that I call. It’s her awful job in our family–being the doctor.

I wouldn’t be alone. I started naming all the women I know who are years and years and years past this quiet room where you wait on the doctor. Jo and Chris and Debbie and the other Debbie and Susan and the other Susan and Dominique.

And Gleam. And that friend’s mom and the other friend’s mom. Wait wait wait, don’t think about them. I cry. I cry for the tiny red and white elf Christmas ornament that Gleam brought me from Europe, that last trip she got to take with her daughter.

Don’t worry about things that aren’t true. Don’t. Just breathe.

And stop breathing.

Because the doctor walks in. Molly is with him and I brace myself.

He waves the wand and studies the screen. He declares it nothing to be concerned about. It’s dense tissue and some kind of cyst something something and I can’t hear because all I can feel is the breathing going in and out and my breathing sounds like laughing. I say, “Are you sure sure? Can we do a biopsy just to be sure?” He tells me to come back in six months and quit worrying about it.

Then I tell him that I’ll need to explain this to my sister and he rattles off so many Latinish words that I get lost in the glory of it. Words are breath and laughter is breath and I am breathing until I stop breathing.

And breathe.



What Does Diphtheria In Spain Have to Do With Your Uterus?

Let me see if I can explain the connection between a couple of ideas that have been nipping at my brain for a few months. They’ve exploded to the surface this week and I get so mad thinking about it that I can barely speak…which means I need to write. Here goes.

Diphtheria_vaccination_posterDiphtheria–haven’t heard that one in a while, huh? That’s because this horrifying bacterial infection has been all but eradicated in the part of the world that enjoys access to modern healthcare. This disease has a 10% fatality rate–those infected die from heart and nerve damage caused by blood-borne bacterial infection. The symptom of this disease that makes me shudder is the white membrane that forms in the throat, choking its victims. Horrible, horrible stuff.

And it’s back.

In late May, a child in Spain developed diphtheria and he’s hooked to machines in an ICU in heart and lung failure, critical condition. His parents had chosen not to vaccinate him; they are devastated that they “received faulty information” and feel horrible guilt. Spain didn’t even have the medicines required to treat diphtheria because they hadn’t had a case since 1986. Luckily (?), Russia had some on hand.

Now EIGHT other children in his circle have tested postive for the bacteria but have not developed diphtheria, because they were vaccinated. They are covered in the stuff, but it cannot get a foothold in their bodies and take over. Their immune systems were ready for that shit and slammed the door right in diphtheria’s face. “Not today, asshole!”

I think many people who grew up in the post-vaccintation generation believe that these diseases are “gone.” Nope. The bacteria and viruses that cause diseases like smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and other diseases I can’t spell ARE STILL EVERYWHERE AROUND US. They are part of the natural world. Vaccination doesn’t kill the things that cause diseases. Vaccination cuts off the infection agent’s access to a place to set up shop. We are all walking around in a miasma of disease agents. Some, like the common cold, can set up shop anywhere in any body. So can diphtheria if there are people who can carry it around, incubate it, and introduce it to others.

I believe in the power and safety of vaccines. Since the 18th century, when Edward Jenner and the milkmaid Sarah Nelmes figured out that a little dose of cowpox could protect a body from catching smallpox, millions of bodies have been off limits to these organisms that share our world. As Dr. Gennaro Gama, our household scientist, noted “Vaccination is a product of the world’s longest running clinical trial.” For 300 years, we’ve benefitted from this practice. Oh, and Jenner was just the first to study vaccination in our part of the world–the Turks had been doing it for hundreds of years before him.



This comic from Red Pen/Black Pen nails it. Those who choose not to vaccinate can still live with a relatively low chance of catching these diseases because all the vaccinated bodies around them ensure their safety. Everyone else is holding the umbrella so they don’t get wet. Fewer places for disease to set up, fewer carriers, lower chance of infection–for people who don’t protect themselves and people who CAN’T protect themselves, like those with compromised immune systems or infants.

So because most people did the work and took the risk, all people are safer from the threat of disease. But if we aren’t vigilant and too many people choose not to do the work of protecting from these diseases the germy boogers have more places to take hold and easier vectors over which to travel from person to person to person.

Now, to your uterus…(sorry to be exclusive, guys)

We all have to participate in vaccination to keep the boogers at bay. We all have to participate in women’s health issues to keep the boogers out of our business. Let me splain.

Just as I’m a big fan of the science of vaccines, I’m also a big fan of women’s access to healthcare and the power we have earned legally to make our own decisions about what happens to our bodies. Namely, I think birth control is fabulous and abortion should be a safe, legal, and accessible option to women. And this week, with the rulings in Texas that make a woman’s right to abortion very very hard to access, I realize that the rights I have assumed were a done deal are being eroded all around. Didn’t we decide this stuff in the 70s? Didn’t we enact laws that gave women these rights? Now anti-choice factions are fighting less about overturning a woman’s right to abortion and just chipping away at their access to the service. Legal abortion is a moot point if you can’t afford it, can’t get to it, or the doctor you were going to see has been harrassed out of practice.

I am saddened by the current story of Kenlissia Jones, a Georgia woman who couldn’t afford a safe and timely abortion so she turned to the internet for the pills that would end her pregnancy. She was initially charged with malice murder but the charges were dropped. A desperate woman’s attempt that harkens back to back alley coat hanger days. It’s an awful story.

RoeI grew up AFTER most of the landmark decisions like Roe v. Wade. I became a woman in a world where I could get birth control pills if I wanted them. I lived in a society where I could choose an abortion to end a pregnancy. I had the advantages of money and insurance. I didn’t have to be all that vigilant about these rights because a lot of other women had opened up the umbrella and were keeping the rain off the rest of us. I didn’t spend any more time worrying about access to health care than I spent worrying about diphtheria. I was innoculated! I was safe…right?


Just like with vaccination, too many people are choosing not to participate in the work and the risk of protecting women’s rights, so our control over our own bodies is being eroded. I’m not even trying to change the minds of people who disagree. Those who would deny women our rights are part of the natural world–I can’t change that any more than I can change polio floating around.

votes-for-womenBut I can sure as hell make an effort to protect my position and to do my part to keep us all safe. If I believe in women’s health issues like keeping abortion legal and available and keeping birth control decisions in the hands of women and not in their employers, I have to step up and use my voice, my vote, my money, and my platform to participate in the work and the risk. I cannot take these rights for granted. Too many women fought too many battles to make it seem easy for us to enjoy our freedoms.

So this is one of those pieces where I was afraid to use my voice but I’m going to speak my truth. And money talks. For the first 50 comments on this post, I will donate $5 each up to a total of $250 to Planned Parenthood of Georgia.

I’m opening my umbrella. Step under if you need to. Open yours, too.

Bikini Season Is Coming! Bikini Season Is Coming!

A quick message today.  

Bikini season is coming!  Or so I hear–the last one I participated in was around 1989.  I got my license renewed a few months ago and it still lists the weight that I was in 1989.  But I digress.  

Every other sponsored post on Facebook these days contains four cartoons of women shaped like fruit or admonitions against the evil fruit that causes belly fat.  Please keep scrolling past all that shit.  Here’s the real message:


bikini season is coming!

You are beautiful.  I hope you enjoy some sun on your face this weekend (after a liberal application of sunscreen, of course).    


Imperfrect Progress


You know how in January it seemed like I wrote a post about boot camp about once a week?  Like One Victory at a Time, Then Suddenly or An Ounce of Quit.  Then February was kind of silent on the whole working out front?  Yeah.  My column today at Work It, Mom! explores my adventures with getting back into a workout routine.  

Do 20 Burpees to jack up your heart rate then click here to check it out!

Fourth Trimester Bodies

Fourth Trimester Bodies

Allison Prejna and her child photographed by Ashlee Wells Jackson

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you look at this photograph?  

Softness?  Nourish?  Mother?  Comfort?  Completion?  Beautiful?  Joy?  

Flab?  Fat?  Cellulite?  Dimples?  Ripples?  Sag?  

This picture makes me ache for the days when I nursed my babies, when they fit so exactly into the curves of my body and the curves of my body were made for sheltering and nourishing them.  For forty weeks, my body gave itself over to the making of another person.  Every cell, every breath, every bite was dedicated to their creation. My body transformed itself–twice–into a ship that carried my two favorite people to this world.  For the first six months after they arrived, my body and not a drop of anything else kept them alive and caused them to flourish.  Even after they began to eat other foods, my daughter and my son returned to me and my body for over a year for nourishment and comfort.  My soft body was and still is their safe harbor.  

This ship, this harbor is a holy place to my children.  Now it is my ship alone, the only vessel I have to navigate the rest of my life.  How can I find its holiness again?  How can I honor it for the work it has done and the adventure that is yet to be had?  

I can look at this picture of a mother and hear the words “softness,” “beautiful,” “completion.”  But were I to pose the same way and fit my toddler in my lap, I am afraid that I would look at the image of my miraculous body and hear the biting words “fat,” “sag,” and “flabby.”  When I walk by a mirror naked, I don’t stop and say, “Wow, this body has done some incredible things!  Thank you!”  Instead, I turn to the side and suck in, poke and prod and sigh.  Or I don’t even stop at the mirror to say hello.  

Today a friend who has recently had a baby confided that she is feeling these “fat” words and fighting with her image of herself.  I knew just what to say to her and meant every word, but if I try to say the same things to myself….well.  So I knew it was a serendipitous gift when another friend posted a link to this wonderful article on Huffington Post about Ashlee Wells Jackson and her Fourth Trimester Bodies Project, “a photo series that embraces the changes brought to women’s bodies by motherhood.  By showcasing moms, Jackson hopes to shine a light on cultural interpretations of female beauty and change women’s expectations for themselves and those around them.” Please click through that link to see a gallery of 27 images of mother bodies.  Jackson is raising funds for her project and hopes to publish a book of images next summer.  She also calls for models!  

There are people who survive to adulthood with intact healthy body images–hooray for them–but many of us have been brainwashed by the Photoshopped, hypersexualised glossy magazine ideal that we hardly know what to think about a lumpy body that bears the marks of life.  I am practicing accepting this body, honoring it for the favors it has done me, and strengthening it for the journey ahead.  

Today’s challenge:  stop by a mirror and say hello.  Look yourself right in the eye for 10 seconds.  Then smile.  Say “Hello, Gorgeous!”   


CAUTION: These Pants Cause Cancer

Cancer pantsThese are the pants that I was wearing on June 30, 2004.  That was such a busy day, a Tuesday, I think.  Maybe a Wednesday.  Richard and I had returned home from our vacation in New England, first at Linekin Bay for sailing then on Cape Cod for his cousin’s wedding.

We had so much to do after two weeks away from home–laundry, cleaning, paying bills.  I went right back to work.  I was teaching a Microsoft Access class that day.  Richard spent the day trying to get seen by a doctor to see if anyone could figure out why his vision was going blurry.

The day before we left for vacation, he cut the backyard with a push mower.  When he came inside, I noticed that he had a big red spot in the corner of his eye.  I asked a nurse friend and she said it was probably a simple burst blood vessel.  A common instance when one overexerts oneself.  It would clear up in a few days.  But it didn’t.  Over the two weeks we were away, the eye stayed red.  By the end of our trip, his vision was so blurry that he had to pull over to the side of the highway and let me drive through Boston.

Richard got in quickly with Dr. Blue, the ophthalmologist.  Dr. Blue looked inside Richard’s eyes and found what he thought was a dangerous bleed.  We spent a few hours in a panic–what if Richard lost his sight?  How could our life work if he went blind?   There was talk of going to Atlanta the next day to see a retinal specialist.  Fortunately (I guess), Richard also mentioned to Dr. Blue that he hadn’t been feeling well for a while and Dr. Blue had the foresight to order a CBC.  While I taught Access, Richard had the blood test done.  By that afternoon, Dr. Blue had called to say that we must get Richard to a hematologist that day.  A normal white cell count is between 4,500-10,000.  Richard’s was over 70,000.

We didn’t know the specifics yet, only that the doctor would be waiting on us at Northeast Georgia Cancer Care.  There was that word.  The unimaginable prospect of Richard losing his vision melted away and was replaced by that word.  We sat in the waiting room there, among those people with cancer.  I couldn’t find a single thing to read on the coffee table that wasn’t about…that.

So.  Dr. Marrano brought us back.  Richard took my hand and told me to wait in another room, that he wanted to talk to the doctor alone.  Dr. Marrano was so gentle with us that my heart went hollow.  You don’t have to be that nice and careful with someone who has anemia or an infection.

I sat in an exam room by myself.  I was so afraid that I couldn’t raise my head up and look around.  All I could see was those ridiculous pants.  Orange jungle print.  Ludicrous pants that hadn’t a care in the world.  I sat there thinking, “He’s over there on the other side of this wall and the doctor is telling him that he has cancer and I am over here trapped in this room with these incredibly obnoxious pants!”  If only, if only, if only.  If only one thing could be different.  Staring at those pants as the knowledge sank in that our normal life was over.

Dr. Marrano tapped on the door and brought Richard back to me.  The door closed behind him–I didn’t get to talk to the doctor.  Richard held my hand again and told me how it was going to be.  Looked me right in the eye and said, “I have leukemia.”  How there were lots of treatments and he had youth on his side and he was heading to Johns Hopkins for the absolute best experts in the field.  

Maybe those pants held me up.  I remember wanting to fall down in a heap.

We drove home, like people do.  I started crying at the traffic light at Prince and Satula.  He patted my hand on the gearshift.   The light changed and we moved on.

That night, we tried to find a doctor to talk to, any doctor.  My sister wasn’t answering, so we called Richard’s college buddy, Eeric.  A giant Viking of an orthopedic surgeon, but he knew how to interpret a CBC.  Richard was on one phone breaking the news to his parents.  I walked out on the deck to read the numbers to Eeric.  When I read the hemoglobin score, he sucked in his breath and whispered, “Shit.”   Normal range is about 14-17.  Richard’s was 7.  Eeric made me promise that I wouldn’t let Richard so much as brush his teeth until he had had a transfusion, which was scheduled for the next morning.

At the end of that long day, I took off my jungle print pants.  Nine years later, and they’re still hanging in the closet, with a fine haze of dust over the hanger.  I never could bring myself to wear them again–those are the cancer pants.  Couldn’t give them away either–they are part of a day in my life that will always be vivid.  Livid.  Obnoxious.  That innocent woman who walked out into the world in her ridiculous pants.  She never came back.

What’s that crazy thing in the back of your closet that you can’t throw away?

Promise You’ll Write?

That flu bug that everyone has been raving about really is as great as you’ve heard!  I haven’t had the flu in 20 years and….DAMN.  Being flat on my back for days has helped me see some things clearly:

  • It really is OK for the kids to eat chicken nuggets for seven meals straight.
  • Dr. Who makes sense when you have a fever.
  • Cats actually do sleep all day long while we’re at work.
  • Of all the things I’ve missed doing over the last few days (eating, walking around, playing with the kids), I’ve really missed writing every day.

I promise I’ll write once I have my head back together.  Today is better than yesterday so I have high hopes for tomorrow.  Besides, I’ve got a story to tell!  Until then, here is a photo essay of Tom Hardy hugging a puppy…