We will take off our white coats, so as not to bring the germs our other patients may carry into this particular room. For the next few weeks, until his bone marrow has made a bit of a recovery, this room, which ends at the second door, will be this man’s entire world, although it may occasionally extend as far as the first door, whenever we decide to enter the room through the second one.
At present he is seated on a chair in a corner of the room, in front of the window, bathed in sunlight. He is drenched in sweat, as he has just spent some time on an exercise bike. The better the patient’s condition prior to the chemotherapy, the more likely the therapy is to be effective. Nurses come and go. They are busy preparing saline solution and bags of blood for the man’s intravenous infusion. Behind my back, I hold my right wrist tight in my left hand. The treating physician is doing the same. The man looks first at one of us, then at the other, slowly switching between us, his face somewhat contorted.
“So we’re starting tomorrow, huh?”
The treating physician looks back at him a little desperate, or even bewildered, not sure how he is going to respond.
“It is what it is,” he says, calmly. “I’ve never wondered: why me? It’s not as if I have to feel sorry for myself just because I have leukaemia. We’ll try to make the best of it. Of course, talking to your wife and kids is kind of hard.” He turns to me. “May I ask who this young doctor is I’m seeing in front of me?”
Things have been so hectic that I haven’t had the opportunity yet to introduce myself. “I’m a trainee doctor, sir. You will see me the rest of this week and next week.”
“That’s great. I wish you the best of luck in your studies.”
A smile, a wink. This disease, this type of treatment, is too big for people to handle.
The good man is bracing himself by taking an interest in us. While on his exercise bike, he pretends to be in control. We reciprocate his powerlessness by treating him, like a patient. This is how we keep the appropriate distance.
His wink only serves to emphasise that we are performing a play. We both know that the next few weeks will be hell. He will suffer constant diarrhoea, severe fatigue and possibly lethal infections. Time will pass slowly, he will be exasperated, and his memory will be deficient, a problem further exacerbated by the juice of the poppy we will feed him. And what exactly will we be doing it for? For a great deal of uncertainty, piled high on a stack of suffering.
Which makes his wink all the more touching. After all, no pain, no gain.
When I look through the viewing window of the first door, I can tell that the second door is closed. Behind it, the patient is having poison administered to his blood. I take off my white coat and rub the hand sanitiser across my hands. While my hand is already reaching for the doorknob, I look over my shoulder once more to check that the first door is closed. It is firmly locked in place.