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One Mistake Led to Another (Part III) – It’s Cancer

Stage I colon cancer
Stage I colon cancer
National Caner Institute

Lady Luck smiled on me last month, no doubt about it. I had a deadly disease and didn’t know about it, but somehow I survived my brush with death.

As I wrote in an earlier article, One Mistake Led to Another (Part II):

It was Father’s Day Weekend, but my wife and I had separated last summer, and my kids seemed to blame the break-up on me.

In fact, none of my three children had contacted me about getting together on Father’s Day. No phone calls, no emails, no texts, no Father’s day cards, nothing.

Since and I didn’t want to sit around the house and mope, I decided to turn a negative into a positive and go to the Adirondack Mountains for a weekend of mountain climbing.

I planned to drive to Lake George on Friday, June 13th, climb Cascade Mountain on Saturday, the 14th, and then climb one of the High Peaks on Sunday, the 15th, as a Father’s Day treat to myself. Then, I drive back on Monday, the 16th.

It didn’t quite work out like that.

Instead I wound up taking an ambulance ride to Unity Hospital in Greece, NY, and when I got there I didn’t even have the strength to lift myself off the ambulance gurney.

Once they got me into the emergency room, they took my vitals and did a blood test. I was looking right at one of the doctors when he saw the results of my blood test, and his jaw dropped open.

My Hemoglobin (Hgb) count was 4, and they said it should have been about 16. My Hematocrit (Hct) count, a blood test that measures the percentage of the volume of whole blood that is made up of red blood cells, was only a 16.

I thought I heard them say that according to my last two physicals with Dr. Newman that it should have been about 64. They seemed to be able to access my medical files online, and I thought to myself that it really does pay off to sign those medical information release forms.

The flurry of activity that followed was incredible. They gave me a blood transfusion, immediately followed by another, so that at one point I had a blood transfusion going into each arm simultaneously.

By the time they finished giving me blood transfusions, they had given me four units of blood, which they said was very unusual. They also told me that I had lost at least 1/3 of my blood supply, which is a serious situation.

While the doctors and nurses were bustling around me, I looked out through the curtain and saw my neighbor Karen LoBracco standing outside my cubicle.

Shortly after that, my son Chuck arrived, after being notified by Sergeant Steve Mesiti of the Brockport Police. So I asked Chuck to see if it would be okay to invite Karen into the room. The doctors agreed, and she came in.

I was feeling slightly better, after the blood transfusions, but the doctors and nurses let me know in no uncertain terms that I was going to spend the night.

I had lost a lot of blood and they weren’t going to release me until they found out why and until they stabilized me.

Later that night I was admitted to the hospital and they took me upstairs to room 3418 on the third floor. Chuck stayed with me until 4:30 AM, even though he had to work the next day. Karen left a lot sooner than that.

On Monday, June 16, I met the attending physician, Dr. Lee, who put me on a clear liquid diet and told me that he had scheduled me for an endoscopy, a procedure used to visually examine the upper digestive system with a tiny camera on the end of a long, flexible tube. The endoscopy was scheduled for the next day, Tuesday the 17th.

He had also scheduled me for a colonoscopy on Wednesday the 18th, so the doctors could look at the inner lining of my large intestine (rectum and colon) by using a thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope to look at the colon.

I didn’t spend much time alone that day. For some reason a physician’s assistant named Rachel and one of the nurses, spent a lot of time in the room talking to me.

First of all, they wanted to know why I hadn’t contacted my doctor when I found blood in the toilet when I had diarrhea.

When I told them that I hadn’t worried about it too much because I’d been able to work at my normal level, except for driving, they told me I must be tough.

But they weren’t as supportive when I told them that I also hadn’t worried about it because I’d looked up food poisoning on webmd.com, and the article had said that “People infected with foodborne organisms may be symptom-free or may have symptoms ranging from mild intestinal discomfort to severe dehydration and bloody diarrhea.”

They didn’t like that answer very much. To them, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the piece of the puzzle I’d missed was that “people can even die as a result of food poisoning,” and that regardless of the circumstances I should always contact my doctor if there is blood in my stool.

When I told them that I had thought I had a bacterial or virus infection related to the food poisoning, that I just couldn’t shake, they spent a lot of time trying to get me to understand that food poisoning would never cause me to lose that much blood, and that there had to be another reason for the blood loss.

They patiently answered my questions and explained over and over again, until they were certain that I truly understood how serious the situation was, and that the two tests - the endoscopy and the colonoscopy - were vital to finding out what was causing me to lose so much blood.

That day, Sarah came to visit and brought me a book, Mental Floss History of the World, and a crossword book. Her visit was a big lift for me and both of the books helped me stay sane during the long hours alone in the hospital. Chuck also came to visit. He was a real trooper.

On Tuesday, June 17th, I had my endoscopy, which was really not invasive at all.

On Wednesday, June 18th, about 8:00 AM, Dr. Lee gave me the results of the upper gastrointestinal tract test I’d undergone the previous day. He told me I have extensive damage to my stomach due to aspirin and naproxen use at the same time. He also told me that I never should have been put on those two medicines at the same time because doing so always caused this kind of stomach problems.

I didn’t have much time to digest that though, because I was scheduled to go for my colonoscopy in about 10 minutes. So I fired off a quick text to my family to let them know the results of the endoscopy and then I went off to have my colonoscopy.

The doctors and nurses had told me that people normally have a colonoscopy at age 50 and then every ten years after that, but somehow I had totally missed that.

In all likelihood, I’d probably just brushed it off and never made the appointment.

I was accident-prone as a kid and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I do not like going to the doctor and I do not like having blood tests and such. They bring back too many bad memories of waiting for hours and hours in the emergency room waiting room at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City when I was a child.

Once, when I’d crashed into a cast iron railing post and split my head open while sledding, I had spent the entire afternoon and evening in the waiting room while the medical staff took care of a boy who had lost control of his sled and gone down a steep rocky slope right next to where I had crashed.

My family had cleaned up the wound so well that the doctors thought I could wait while they treated someone with a more serious injury. Then I had to continue waiting while the medical staff took care of another boy who had lost control of his sled and gone down a steep rocky slope in the Bronx right across the Harlem River from where I had been sledding.

So in my mind, incidents like that explained why I’d never had a colonoscopy before. I don’t like going to the doctor unless I absolutely have to.

The staff had briefed me that a colonoscopy helps find ulcers, colon polyps, tumors, and areas where there is inflammation or bleeding. During a colonoscopy, tissue samples can be collected (for a biopsy) and abnormal growths can be removed. Colonoscopy is also used as a screening test to check for cancer or precancerous growths (polyps) in the colon or rectum.

As these thoughts were running through my mind, an attendant came in and wheeled me up to the Diagnostic Imaging Department, where Doctor Sandeep Naidu performed the colonoscopy.

Because of the way I was stretched out, I could barely see Doctor Naidu as he worked. Doctor Naidu is a short stout man with a no-nonsense attitude, which is a trait I admire.

Maybe he sensed that, because at one point he stepped back so I could see him, and he said, “You have Colon Cancer.” Then he ducked back down so I couldn’t see him.

That kind of straight forward approach was okay with me, but I don’t think many other people would be comfortable with it.

When I got back to my hospital room, the nurses were amazed that I was so upbeat after finding out I had cancer.

But the colonoscopy had answered the critical questions that had been driving me crazy: why am I so sick and why have I been sick for so long?

At 11:33 AM, I sent a text to my family and friends, “I have Colon Cancer, I will update you as I know more.”

I got a steady stream of answers, from all sorts of people including my brother Chuck, my friend Pam Ketchum, and Brockport police Officer Brian Winant. All of the feedback was positive and stressed that this was beatable so I should keep a positive attitude.

From my point of view, I was just glad to know what had made me so sick. All of my assumptions about what was the matter with me had turned out to be wrong, and it was frustrating to the extreme, to be so sick and not have any idea why. At least now I knew.

That night Chuck, Sarah, and Cathy all came to visit me in the hospital. HindsightThe day that started on such a low note, ended on a high note.

To Be Continued in One Mistake Led to Another (Part IV).