Last week a friend and co-worker of mine left work early and raced home after hearing some scary medical news. Her granddaughter, a good-natured one-year-old infant, had gotten some routine blood tests, and the results were troubling. One of the tests revealed a high level of inflammation in the girl’s system, a possible marker for cancer. The next day, my friend and her daughter took the child to the local cancer center to meet with an oncologist.
The oncologist was cautiously optimistic, and explained that the inflammation could be an indicator of a cold or infection—anyone’s blood will show an increase in this marker when they are sick. My friend managed to hold onto the doctor’s words as she and her family waited for a second round of test results. As we sat in her office during a lull in the action, I said, “Any day without a crisis is a good day.”
Later that afternoon I spoke with my mother, whom I call on a daily basis. Years ago, I called her once a week, on Sundays, but as Mom has aged and her health has grown fragile, I check in more frequently—partly for her, partly for my own peace of mind. I heard her voice, small, defeated, and knew something was wrong. Immediately my heart rate jumped; I shifted into crisis mode, preparing myself for what I would hear next.
So far this year, my mother has been hospitalized twice for dehydration, has fallen and fractured two bones, and has been struggling with short-term memory loss. Her weight, down to 88 pounds in February, has bounced back to a relatively robust 99 pounds by late September. “I went to see the blood doctor at University Hospital,” Mom said. “She said my white blood cell count was off, and there was something she didn’t like. I have to go back for IV treatments.”
That meant a long trip down to the hospital in the city of Cleveland, a half-hour trip from her home in the suburbs. My mother, an anxious patient at the best of times, would find this exhausting. “Well, let’s not jump to conclusions,” I said. “Your white blood cell count has been high before, and the doctors weren’t worried about it.”
I put in a text, and then a phone call to my mother’s advocate, Rita, the social worker who accompanies her to various medical appointments. When she called me back about an hour later, Rita filled in the missing pieces of the puzzle. It turned out that my mother’s test results had not changed since her blood was checked last spring. The doctor thought IV-iron treatments might give Mom more energy, and she suggested my mother participate in a medical study for elderly folks who showed evidence of an imbalance in their blood. So, the treatments were optional, and my response to the social worker was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Ultimately, my mother’s primary care physician will decide if she needs the treatments. At least I know that this is not a crisis, not even a minor one, despite Mom’s fear of doctors and her tendency to assume the worst.
My conversation with my mother, and the 90-minute waiting period until I got the full story from the social worker, served as a bracing reminder of the daily tightrope of having an aging parent, of the uncertainty of life in general.
The next day my friend told me that her granddaughter was fine, her second round of blood tests normal. I looked around at my own life and some of the things I’m struggling with—a wicked case of dry-eye syndrome, which frequently keeps me up at night as my eyes burn and dry out—uncertainty in my work situation, noisy dogs in my building, and an overall sense of sleep deprivation, and reminded myself that I had just dodged another bullet.
“Any day without a crisis is a good day,” I repeated, to my friend and to myself, which put my own small problems into some perspective. Then I walked down the hall to my office, took a deep breath, and got to work, thankful to be living in this moment.