The Community at M.D. Anderson vs. The Beast

I just returned from a quick trip to Houston where my dad had surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. (quick side note – Dad is GREAT after having a benign tumor removed from inside his head. That’s a whole other crazy story unto itself) Across the street from M.D. Anderson is the Rotary House Hotel – a hotel run by Marriott, but part of the Texas Medical Center complex in Houston. You have to have a patient number to even check-in to the Rotary House. So, as soon as you walk in – to the hotel or hospital, either one – you are automatically ‘in’. Not ‘in’ as in ‘hip’, but ‘in’ as in ‘in the group’ or ‘on the team’ or ‘one of us’. The Beast* of Cancer has touched you in some manner.

Being ‘in’ at M.D. Anderson reminds me of when Christopher Reeve was voted president of the American Paralysis Association. He said, “I’m president of a club I wouldn't want to join.” As soon as you walk into M.D. Anderson you are in a wonderful community of people who never want to join that particular community. You are given a front-row seat as people you don’t know engage in the most intimate and basic struggles in life – the fight to stay alive.

If you are among the patients or family at M.D. Anderson, it’s because the Beast has clutched a life, shaken it hither and yon, and left it upside down, leaving the occupant to wonder if he/she will live long enough to right themselves.

You’re automatically on the team and granted unlimited kindness, for no one knows where your fight has taken you that day. Volunteers, patients, doctors, technicians, food-service workers, patient’s families, housekeepers, nurses and so many more all openly and warmly welcome you as one of their own – for you are fighting the fight, as well. There’s no elevator rage, line-position envy, or grudging the cafeteria prices. There’s plenty of, “No, you go ahead.” “You have a great day, Sugar” and piles and piles of laughter. It’s as if one of the unspoken rules is that we must not let the Beast sense any disunity among the survivors! We must present a united front. There are smiles and nods and searching eyes. As I looked into the eyes of survivors, I saw the same questions I was asking internally reflected back: “Why are you here?” “How are you holding up?” and, of course, “Are you going to make it? You’re going to make it, right? My own hope depends on you making it – you HAVE to make it!”

It seems that even my kids picked up on it. I took them with me, honestly, because it was easier than figuring out how else to juggle them, and because I knew they would be fine. They were more than fine. They seemed to sense being admitted into the community of survivors, as well. They walked and walked and hiked the maze that is M.D. Anderson. They waited and waited and waited some more. They did it all without griping or arguing -- with me OR each other! Truly, there is some magic dust in the halls of M.D. Anderson.

Maybe it’s the visible reminders of the survivors. We saw an elderly woman with no nose. We saw a 20-something young lady with no right shoulder or arm. We saw three bald women and one precious bald little girl – two of the ladies had beautiful sequined hats, all had beautiful, beaming smiles. We saw IV pole after IV pole being waltzed through the halls by its accompanying survivor. We sat in the waiting room with the family of a gentleman who was having his esophagus removed and his stomach stretched up to do the job of the esophagus. We saw one anguished man pace the waiting room for no less than 6 hours – he was still pacing when we left.

Today as I drove back and returned to civilization and real life – maybe more accurately: real shallow life, I wondered what life would look like if we gave everyone the same kindnesses out here. What if the person who almost walked into you without seeing you had spent all morning in a waiting room waiting on news of a loved one? What if the gentleman who was impatient had been unable to eat while waiting on a test that has been delayed by hours? What if the “idiot driver” had vision overtaken by tears as the enormity of the Beast overwhelmed her? My precious preacher keeps talking about what makes us be community to each other. I'm pretty sure the folks at M.D. Anderson have a handle on it. Heaven forbid we must be touched by the Beast to figure it out.

Like everyone else, I never wanted to be introduced to anything about The Beast – the hospital that treats it, the community that fights it, or the medical personnel that would devote their lives to fighting it. Now that I have been, though, I feel so blessed to be a part of that world – just a tiny, little way-out fringe part, quietly looking on, finding ENORMOUS blessings in my family’s situation, while pleading-praying for those around me. Leave it to The Beast to put all of life into perspective.

(*I stole the reference to cancer as The Beast from a fabulous article at the back of the current ACU Today that I cannot currently locate and isn't posted online yet-- when I find the originator of the phrase, I will give him due credit as the accurate genius he is)


Merci said...

Sarah, I have to tell you, I read several blogs and a lot of the comments and all the time I'm reading how a post brought someone to tears, or left another with gales of laughter, and honestly, I usually think, "Huh, I didn't think it was that funny or that poignant." But today, your post truly touched something deep inside me. I read it aloud to my husband with tears streaming down my face. Thank you for such a vivid reminder of how each moment is a gift and everybody's got a story and if we'd just take a little "community" with us when we go out, the world would be a better place. I'll do my best to remember that today when the "idiot driver" pulls out in front of me. And I'm really happy that your dad's doing so well!

Mom said...

An addendum about the staff at every level of M. D. Anderson: late Monday night as I wound my way through the maze of halls, I made a wrong turn and found my way in front of elevators that are for staff only. So I stepped back, getting my bearings. A man holding a broom who apparently works in housekeeping noticed my hesitation. "May I help you find something?," he said. Just as he said it, I saw the elevators I needed. But I was struck that he didn't think it was a social worker's job to help me find my way or a volunteer's job. He just saw a need and was willing to fill it. I see that attitude over and over again at M. D. Anderson. We are so grateful that we have such a wonderful place to go and be treated. AND grateful for a daughter who can be touched by what goes on there.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Sarah! I didn't know that your Dad has surgery or that there was anything wrong. I am so glad that everything went well. In 2000, my Mom had an acoustic neuroma removed from her brain. The tail of the tumor had wrapped itself around her auditory nerve and then the tumor was so large that it was pressing on her brain stem and causing many other physical problems.She had hers removed in San Antonio. I am glad that things went well for your family. I know how incredibly scary that is! Blessings! M.C.

Roxanne said...

First of all, YEA!!!!!! I am so glad that your dad came through everything well. Secondly, well said. There really IS something about serious illness that strips away pride, selfishness, the class system and leaves everyone on the level playing field of survival.
"What if everyone treated others that way all of the time?" The world would be a much, much nicer place.

Thanks for the wonderful post.

Anne Jones said...

Beautiful....we have called it the "Big C" around here sometimes, but I really like the term 'beast'. I have a beautiful plaque that I received that I will have to email you what it says. It is titled "What Cancer Cannot Do", and it hangs right next to the door of my bathroom, where I see it every day!

And I think you are referencing the article by Perry Flippin where he talks about his wife's battle with "The Monster".

I am so thankful your dad is doing so well!

Mike Stirman said...

So very well written (as usual) and heartfelt. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. I am so glad Mike is "on the road again".

Scott F said...

So glad your father is doing well! In my line of work at the American Cancer Society, I see exactly what you are describing -- how people treat each other who are in that club they would rather not be in. And in our personal experience, MD Anderson is a great place. Sandy's surgery was 17 hours long! And the "magic dust" of calmness even landed on our Alyssa, who was 10 months old at the time and did wonderful during that long wait.

mad4books said...

So touching! Glad your dad is okay.

I'll never forget the time, through some medical mixup, I had to get my flu shot from the oncology nurses. As I waited my turn not far from people who were cheerfully receiving their chemotherapy--with colorful head scarves and friends who waited with them and good magazines and favorite blankets they'd brought from home--I was humbled and speechless and GRATEFUL for the Instant Attitude Adjustment they gave me...better medicine than any flu shot!

Donna said...

First of all, I'm glad all is well with your Dad. Second, your post is so very true! Thank you for putting it into words for all of us to be reminded and touched.
Many who have children with cancer and are part of the St Jude's network refer to cancer as "the beast." I do not know where the phrase came from, but have heard it all too often.

Terral said...

Sarah, I am really glad your dad's surgery was a success, and he received good news. You never know what someone is going through! This really encourages me to try and let my light shine as much as possible.

dad said...

They say that writers have the gift to write down what the rest of us only think. You, my precious daughter, have a large load of that gift.
You nailed it. You really nailed it.
I am feeling much better, and I give God the praise that I got to walk out of that hospital under my own power and return home with the word "benign" on my chart.

Brenda said...

I've known your parents most of my life. Your Dad emailed me this article and I am so glad he did. My husband was at MD Anderson for a brief time (is cancer free at present) and I have seen what you described and relived it as I read your article. You put into words the exact feelings we had as we roamed the halls and maneuvered the maize that is MD Anderson. Thank you for sharing your talent and writing this for all of us to reflect upon our shared experiences in such a lovely way. Your optimism shines through just as it does in your dad with his on-going struggle with "The Beast". Brenda Rowan

Lmc2707 said...


I've known you parents many years and have had the pleasure to perform with him at Little Theatre and now with the Primetime Players.
Your dad emailed me your article and I was very touched by it. I have two good friends who also went through the M.D. Anderson experience. It really is an awsome place where, in the face of suffering and anxiety, one can find the highest levels of care and compassion.
Thanks for sharing,
Paulette Cappel

Sarah S. said...

Brenda -- thanks for stopping by, as well as the kind words about my writing. I'm SO very thankful that your husband is currently cancer free! While M.D. Anderson is truly a magical place full of precious people, the best place for it to be is in the rear-view mirror after you hear, "You're all clear!!" May it always be the case for you and yours.

Sarah S. said...

Paulette, wow! What a voice from my past. Yes, I have heard your name for many years and I know we have crossed Little Theater paths lo, many years ago. Hope your friends are currently doing well in their fight against cancer. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog.

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