doc w/ pen

a journalist becomes a doctor before your eyes

Month: February, 2010

Putting a face to some medical jargon

Note: I wrote this post while in Colorado about two weeks ago, but just now finished editing it. So my use of the present tense is a bit outdated. But you get the idea.
Anemia. Neutropenia.Thrombocytopenia. Anemia, I’m familiar with. But those other two? Total medical jargon to me. Until today. Because if you present with these three symptoms – low red blood cell count, low neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) count, and low platelet count – you may get to spend a good amount of time where I was this morning: the local cancer center. 
I don’t have cancer; my grandpa does. And I am here in Boulder, Co. for what will likely be my last visit with him. His doctors give him just a few months to live. At most.
The diagnosis? Myelodysplastic syndrome. More medical jargon, right? But this may ring a bell: leukemia. Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) is a kind of pre-leukemia, and can develop into acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). But just because it has the affix “pre” in front of the “leukemia” part doesn’t mean it isn’t deadly. The bone marrow in people who have MDS doesn’t produce blood cells correctly, leaving the patients susceptible to infections and severe bleeding, as well as to leukemia itself. 
My grandpa’s treatment? Vidaza. More commonly know as (one type of) chemotherapy. One treatment cycle of three injections per day, five days a week, one week per month. Vidaza, according to drug manufacturer Celgene Corporation’s Web site, “may be able to help your bone marrow make healthy blood cells again” ( But Vidaza can also cause the things it is supposed to help your body avoid – a reduction in red, white, and platelet blood cells. It can also make you miserable, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other adverse reactions in some patients. This treatment conundrum not unique to Vidaza, of course; other chemotherapies have similar pro/con effects. 
Luckily, Grandpa doesn’t seem to have any side effects from the medication, other than tenderness at the injection site. But the effects of the MDS are quite visible. His skin is pale, almost gray, from the lack of red blood cells. He tires easily and moves more slowly.
It’s difficult to watch a man who was once so active, who would take me fishing and target shooting up at my grandparents’ mountain cabin, who would play whiffle ball with me at the park, who drove out to Chicago in all kinds of weather to see his three out-of-town granddaughters, like this. He can’t drive at all now, and the mere thought of those activities would exhaust him these days. 
Seeing him reminded me of all those times, and more. Of ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins, of barbecues at my grandparents’ house with all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins present, of games of Old Maid and Monopoly, of fish-fry breakfasts, of mountain trail rides in the Land Rover. As we made another happy memory – an extended family dinner at our favorite local spaghetti restaurant, The Blue Parrot (in Louisville, Co.) – I was reminded of all those times we spend together, and reminded that the dinner I was then eating, sitting just to the left of my grandpa, would likely be our last meal together. I listened to him tell and retell the stories of his and my grandma’s lives. I looked past the fact that I had heard most of those stories twice, three, ten times, and soaked in every word. I asked questions I already knew the answer to, because I wanted him to keep talking forever, to keep that moment alive forever, as if it would keep him alive forever. 

From parabolic purgatory to elliptical elation

It feels good when things make sense. When even just a tiny piece of the world is ordered, and you get that order.

I wasn’t getting it.
By “it” I mean parabolas. You know, those U-shaped graphs. They look so innocent, don’t they? Until you learn that you’re to locate not only the graph’s vertex (a simple task, really), but also its axis, focus, and directrix. My precalculus review book spelled it all out – all 10 formulas that I had to remember, depending on whether the parabola opened vertically or horizontally. But there was no explanation as to why these formulas existed. How were they derived? What did all those variables mean
Nothing. I was just expected to remember them. And to use them upon command.
Uh, yeah, right. Just call me a math monkey.
No. I need to understand why. To have things make sense in a larger way. But apparently my book’s author wasn’t interested in that. Or perhaps there was a budget cut and the book had to be shortened and that piece of instructional text cut out. Maybe. 
Not that it matters. Either way, I was on my own in my parabolic purgatory. I avoided math for a day or two. Then today I picked it up again. I looked at the graphs. I looked at the equations. I looked at the graphs again. And a light went on. 
“Ohhhhh ………. ” The sound of relief. “So that’s what “p” represents. I GET it now!”
With that one bit of knowledge – the meaning of “p” – I completely understood all 10 formulas, and rather than blindly memorizing them, was able to reason through them while completing (successfully) the practice set. 
Nearly dizzy with glee, I turned the page. Next topic: ellipses. And thought to myself, OK, they’re just flattened circles, no big deal. But wait. There are two kinds of ellipses – horizontally squashed ones and vertically stretched ones. And for each, there are seven (for a total of 14) important points to remember. Plus two formulas. Plus the equation for finding “c.” (Whatever “c” is …) That’s 17 things to remember, minimum!  And again, no explanation of how or why, no way to help me remember. Ack.
I could feel the pressure building up in my brain. A serious case of mathocephalus. 
I took a long draw on my espresso. I prayed for an ephiphany. But just as with parabolas, there would be no epiphany. There would only be hard work, there would be me reasoning things through and helping me help myself. 
I sighed and focused on the graphs. OK, this length represents “a,” that’s “b,” the other one is “c,” hold on, THIS MAKES SENSE! (It is math, after all.) 
Elation. But also a realization: I would probably have to do the same thing with the next page, and the page after that … I would have to keep working through things. I was past the easy stuff. This required work. And sometimes work is frustrating. It is also rewarding, when you put the necessary time and effort into it.

$$ Taking control $$

I can’t afford to pay for school. A glance at my checking account makes that painfully obvious. Then again, most people can’t afford to pay for school on their own. That’s what grants and loans are for. But to get access to that money, you have to fill out the dreaded FAFSA.

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” And it is free to fill out – except that time is money, and the FAFSA can take a good while to complete. Plus, you have to have already filed your taxes. Which take even longer.

At least, that’s what I thought. But thanks to the electronic age and the ability to do everything online, I e-filed my taxes in about an hour (three thumbs up, TurboTax!), and filled out the FAFSA in half that time.


Now I just need to get accepted to Dominican so I can use the loan money I’ll (hopefully) be approved for …