What A Difference Two Units Of Blood Make

I slept through the first unit and a half. I think I was barely conscious for the cab ride to the Macmillan Cancer Centre. Chris got me up to Haematology on the fourth floor. I lay down on a bed, stretched out my arm, and that was all until some hours later when I woke up and had to visit the loo.

I was still being transfused but the IV tree was on wheels so I just took it with me. Got up, went to the loo, came back. All without having a pschedelic dizzy spell or collapsing breathless like a marathon runner. Even the nurse said my colour had vastly improved. When I had arrived, she said, I was about the whitest white person she had ever seen. Well, I am pretty pale anyway but I’d been getting progressively paler for weeks, even before my final round of chemo, so no one had really noticed the change. Even I hadn’t noticed my lips were disappearing. Now I’m a lot pinker.

Just goes to show you: as much as you research and ask questions and study up on what to expect when you have chemo, something can still sneak up on you.

I’d had episodes of breathlessness before but they always went away after a few days. I figured this would, too. Even after a couple of weeks, I thought it was just the cumulative nature of the beast and if I waited a little longer, it would finally pass. I didn’t connect the dizzy spells with the breathlessness––I thought that was just the loss of hair in my inner ear. My blood pressure has always been on the low end of normal––90/60 isn’t unusual for me and I’ve always had to be careful not to stand up too fast. But my ears never rang like this. Eventually it occurred to me that my blood pressure might be too low. The information on the Macmillan site said that absent problems like asthma or COPD, breathlessness was usually due to low red cell count. 

So my brain finally made use of what few red cells were left and called the Macmillan Cancer Centre for advice. They told me to come right in for a blood test, and to wait for the results.

It took a while for Chris and I to get our collective act together but we finally made it and they told me that yes, I was quite anaemic but they would have to transfuse me the next day (yesterday). I had no idea how long a transfusion took––the one and only transfusion I’d ever had was over fifty years ago, during heart surgery. Apparently it has to be done slowly or the heart can’t handle the extra burden. Fine with me––I hadn’t made any plans for the rest of the day. They hooked me up about 9:00 a.m. or so and like I said, I dozed off. I never even knew when they changed the first bag. Poor Chris, who was probably as exhausted as I was, sat beside my bed, holding my hand while he read a book. 

That I do remember––not the cannula in my arm but the feeling of his hand around mine.

Last night I had the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in a while. I never would have connected anaemia with sleeping badly but I guess when you’re anaemic, nothing works right, especially not the V-shape of chemo. After sliding down one side, you try rising up the other side but you keep sliding back down until the anvil mashes you flat.

Fellow travellers in Cancerland: if you are still mashed flat after two or more weeks, have a blood test. Especially if walking from your living room to your loo leaves you panting and gasping like you’ve just sprinted six blocks. It’s not a matter of pushing yourself or getting back into condition after being sick. You cannot will red blood cells into existence. Trust me––I tried.

I’m still going to take it a little easy for the next few days, just to let all those new red cells get used to their new home and make friends, although I may try a short walk to the shops on Green Lanes for a treat or two. Poor Chris is exhausted from the effort of worry and waiting on me hand and foot. I think it’s time for him to lie down and have a rest. Gentleman Jynx, coolest black cat in London, is keeping an eye on him from the underwear drawer (the drawer above it is missing––long story––so he can lie in my knickers and watch over the room).

You know, there’s a section early on in The Dead Zone by Stephen King where the heroine remembers her recent past and she thinks about how a person can struggle along with an extremely heavy burden for a very long time and never realise just how heavy it is until it’s gone. That’s how I’m feeling today––now that the strain is gone, I understand how bad it was, not just for me but for Chris. I probably should have called Macmillan a couple of weeks ago.

I’ll leave you with this moment of surrealism: when I was sitting in the Haemotology waiting room, I realised the design on the floor was a pattern of repeating words––one line, one word, repeated. Amazing, I thought––were these just random words the decorator thought would look good or did they spell out something significant?

It took me a little while before I realised I was looking at the lyrics to “Chantilly Lace.”



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