lunes, 26 de octubre de 2009

A Place Where Cancer Is the Norm,” by GINA KOLATA.

My husband sent me yesterday an article published in the New York Times: “Forty Years’ War: A Place Where Cancer Is the Norm,” by GINA KOLATA. I was moved by Dr. Raber’s story. Even though his cancer had nothing to do with mine, I identified with his attitude about using his disease to become a different type of doctor, one who has learned through experience that he needed to formulate different questions to his patients. Rather than asking a patient if he/she is eating well or feeling energetic, he will ask now more specific questions such as: What did you eat today? He learned through his own experience that a “good meal” or “feeling energetic” means something else for a cancer patient.

Indeed, there were days in which eating a soda cracker or corn meal was all what my stomach could handle. I considered it a treat, but I was not eating a good balanced meal. There were days in which I considered an accomplishment being able to walk through the hall at the front door of my apartment using a walker. I am sure I would have answered my doctor that I had a good appetite and was feeling stronger. It’s a matter of perspective, but while I sincerely would have told my doctor that I was “doing better,” I would have deprived him from the opportunity to treat my malnourished and weak body. Fortunately, my doctor knew all that and prescribed me a bunch of vitamins (D3, iron, B-50 and Centrum) so that I could maintain some strength and compensate from my lack of appetite through the difficult process of chemotherapy. Even though my doctor has not experienced cancer, he certainly knows how to listen in an effort to grasp his patient’s perspective. If listening to what the patient feels and says is important, experiencing the pain in your own body breaks the wall between the doctor and the patient, the self and the other. It helps you reach out or at least become more empathetic with the particular pain felt by others.

I belief suffering cancer in the left lobe of my brain have taught me a lot about how to learn and teach literature. From reading a whole play before going to sleep and remembering every single dialogue upon waking up next morning, I moved to the frustrating experience of not being able to read more than two lines, and ending up remembering just the last word of the sentence. I could feel my empty eyes wandering around, trying to go back to the very beginning of the first sentence. Having suffered aphasia for a period of time, there were times in which the word that came out of my mouth did not match at all with what I thought I was saying. “I just couldn’t tackle the bear,” as one of Gregory House’s patients suffering aphasia expressed his frustration of not being able to handle being (tackle) bipolar (the bear). It even became a joke in the family. Whenever I said something while meaning something else, Carla and Danilo used to say: “she couldn’t tackle the bear.” Just to give you an example: for my birthday celebration, I asked Jaime to take me to Casa Bavaria, but I meant Café Berlín.

I was surprised to see that we were heading to Morovis rather than Old San Juan.
Carla, Danilo and Jaime agreed that I said that I wanted to go to Casa Bavaria. Inside my brain, I thought I said that I wanted to go to Café Berlín. There were times in which I wasn’t able to hear two different sounds at the same time. It was impossible to understand what someone was saying if there was any kind of background music or even the sound of a bird singing. I lost the muscles and reflexes of both of my legs, and using my right hand was painful. Everything was difficult: from writing a simple paragraph to understanding one of my previously published articles. Yes, I had the privilege of reading myself while asking “what does she mean, what was she thinking?” “Oh God, this sentence is so long that I have to subdivide it in little segments so that I don’t forget what was the main point.” Suddenly, I was my own student, suffering my own complexity from the point of view of someone who did not even recognize that she needed to know that she did not know anything.

When I went back to Texas for evaluation in April 2009, my friend Sonia told me that several days after surgery I was even clapping with joy when I was able to identify a giraffe as a squirrel. As soon as I left the room to take a shower, she told me that Rose Marie broke in tears, wondering if I would ever recover my memory, my ability to express myself through language. They agreed that as soon as I get out of the bathroom, they would have to explain to me that that animal was not a squirrel and I needed to carry a notebook with me all the time to write down all the words that were difficult to remember. The green notebook I bought for this purpose became my only hope to put together words and images so that I could communicate in a precise and concise effective way. I could not continue saying circle while meaning square or squirrel while meaning giraffe. Nobody would understand me. Nobody who has not seen House would know what my kids meant when saying: “She couldn’t tackle the bear.”

I am not fighting the bear any more. I see through the eyes of that bear. The bear is in and outside of me: in the empty wondering eyes of some of my students, in every “incoherent” word they sometimes use within a sentence, in every word they struggle to pronounce, in every handwriting that’s way too hard to understand, I see myself. Are they taking me to Casa Bavaria while thinking about Café Berlín? Berlín/Bavaria, Morovis/Old San Juan. What’s in a name, I ask? How can I connect the dots to open an effective, and eventually precise and concise channel of communication? Can each of my students carry around a green notebook in the hope to remember what they should know, or at least that they should know that they don’t know? How can I help my students overcome their difficulties reading, understanding, or choosing the precise words? I frequently ask myself “What are you thinking?” “How can I divide this thought step by step so that a different eye other than my own could both grasp my thinking process and the point I have arrived through that process?”

I am a cancer survivor, but I refuse to acknowledge having battled cancer. I learned to embrace it as a gift to become a different person. Have I become a better teacher? I don’t know. I only know that I became and befriended the bear. I hear him roaring from the inside out, and I let him be.