Paralyzed By Fear - A Gun to the Head

Posted by Steven Russell on Friday, January 30, 2015


I've never had anyone hold a gun to my head. I don't profess to know exactly what that feeling is like. I can only imagine that moment of terror when you realize that someone, in a split second, could pull the trigger and end your life. You probably wouldn't have much time to even notice the event. It would just happen and your awareness would end, or so I imagine.

But what if that same threat of death were to unfold much more slowly? What if it were as if there were a gun to your head but you didn't know it was a gun? What if you saw someone standing over you and you saw they had something in their hand, but you couldn't make out what it was or exactly what danger it held for you, if any?

I'm sitting in the waiting room in the Oncology Service, the whole fourteenth floor of Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. The sign on the outside of the building said, "America's First. World's Best." I guess it’s comforting that the figure standing over you is the best in the world at whatever it is that they are going to do to you.

It's always a harrowing ride into Philly. The trek from 95 to the Ben Franklin Bridge spits in the face of the sleek sixteen lanes of the newly opened truck and car lanes on the Jersey Turnpike. To go from that free-flowing, open road(well except for the idiot from New York who had to cut in front of me in the left lane then tap his brakes because I was too close to him, which took all of my effort to disregard his wickedness) to the spaghetti of road changes and lane shifts, left exits and right exits, on strip-mall-clogged local roads just for the distinct pleasure of crossing the Ben Franklin bridge only to then attempt to navigate the cluster that's called the entrance to the City of Brotherly Love is stressful, to say the least. 

I first came here in March of 2008. That was a Jersey Turnpike time of life. In 2007 I got a Civil Union with my husband, Joe, on a boat circling NYC. A few months before that I had been seeing random flashes of light in my lower right eye. I thought little of that, probably because in September of 2006 I had jabbed the arm of sunglasses into that eye, bruising the iris. I thought it was just residual effects from that. February of 2008 saw several concerts, a wonderful convention with friends in Hartford, and an extremely fun cabaret of songs written for women sung by men. Yeah, we did "Cell Block Tango."  I even sang "Special" from Avenue Q. It was a free-flowing, fast-paced time. The flashes continued.

On Monday, February 25th, I went to a regular check up with my optometrist, Gina. Everything looked good. I almost didn't remember the flashes. But at the end of the visit I told her about them. She said, "Oh," in a way that's like making a U-Turn on the Turnpike going 85 and heading up the truck lanes going the wrong way. She looked and looked in my eye until I was blind from the lights. She said, "I don't see anything, but I'm going to have a retina specialist take a look just to make sure." She made the appointment for me.  It was for the next day.  

In the retina specialist's office they poked, pried, flashed, and put such bright lights in my eye that I felt my whole head get hot. After what seemed like hours, the doctor said that I had a freckle in my eye. He said that it was small and probably nothing. He suggested that I go to Wills Eye Hospital so that they could take more detailed pictures and watch it for changes. He said that sometimes, but very rarely, they could develop into melanoma, but that was unlikely. They made the appointment for me for Monday, March 3rd.  

My husband couldn't get off of work that day since it was such short notice. I got my friend Brian to take me. I had never heard of Wills, let alone known that it was such a world-renowned eye hospital. Little did I know that the top floor was run by two of the world’s best ocular oncologists. I encountered people there who had flown in from around the world to see these doctors. If I thought I had seen bright lights before, I was mistaken. They poked more, held my eye open, put goop on it and took a sonogram, took pictures with flashes of light that were so bright my whole body instantly started to sweat.  They numbed my eye and took a wide-angle scan where the lens actually sits on the surface of the eye. What a wild light show that was. I saw more doctors, each of whom had to look in my eye more deeply and for longer than the previous one had. Wills is a teaching hospital, so there we doctors and assistant doctors, each of whom had a train of interns who had to look, too. 

I was waiting in a fairly dark room for quite a while. I heard a flurry of activity in the hall and then a lot of whispering. It was Dr. Carol Shields, the director, and unknown to me, one of the, if not the, leading experts in ocular melanoma. She floats down the hall on a puff of wind made by the interns who study to gain a bit of her expertise. To me she seemed like a tennis player. Muscular. Athletic.  Blunt. Direct. The door opened. She looked at me, well, as much as I could tell in the dark, and said, "We think you're going to be alright."

Was that the gun in her hand? Did she pull the trigger to let out a slow-motion bullet that might hit me in a month, a year? Would I die a normal death before the bullet shattered my skull?

That moment was like you're standing in Times Square. Everything goes silent. Then the lights and buildings start to shift and move around you. Then you're facing the total opposite side of the square. Or are you?

What? That's all I remember. What. Melanoma? She was pretty sure that the tumor(tumor? What happened to freckle?) in my eye was melanoma. What was I doing Thursday?

As I look back, that moment was like coming off the subway uptown, getting up the stairwell, getting turned around until you can't tell if you're walking on a sidewalk uptown, downtown, or on a street heading west. Or maybe it's east.  

I went into the hospital Thursday, March 6 to be treated with brachytherapy, where a radioactive plaque was sewn to my eye, left in for five days, then removed. I couldn't leave the hospital room. Fortunately I was an hour from home. I had many visitors, well over the limit of two at a time! I felt bad for the patients in the rooms next to mine who flew in and had no visitors. I couldn't even visit them myself. 

So far the bullet is still in the air. I have what's called Choroidal melanoma. Cancer of the eye is very rare. Six per million get it every year. Half of those diagnosed die from it. There aren't a lot of statistics since it's so rare, but I estimate that when I was diagnosed I had a seventy percent chance of being dead in a couple of years. Once it metastasizes, people usually live about seven months. I'm almost seven years out and still here. Today's visit is once a year to see how the tumor is shrinking and to take more pictures. The lights will be bright, but maybe today I'll get the cute tech with the beard. The really scary visit will be in February with the melanoma specialist. That will involve the scans to see my lungs and liver. The time leading up to that will be a couple anxious months, then the scans, then then the results. We call that "scanziety." Sounds like another post about that.

What helps? Breathing. I don't know how I'd get through all of it without yoga. Maybe the world would have spun more. Maybe I'd be like the New York driver. Maybe I'd be so shaken I'd have just stayed home, but for now at least, I'm still on the highway.



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