Putting a face to some medical jargon

by Lorien E. Menhennett

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 So my use of the present tense is a bit outdated.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” (www.vidaza.com). 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.