Saturday, December 13, 2014

Four-Legged Therapists

I never considered myself a dog person - at least not in the typical sense of the word.  Though there were certainly plenty of dogs who have played a role in my life.

Heather Caro, Age 8
Growing up, my rural childhood home was a veritable revolving door of farm animals in the process of being "saved" by my brother and I.  Much to my father's dismay - and despite countless lectures - I liberated the Magpies from the carefully placed bird traps which speckled our cherry orchards and named each stray dog dropped off within a five mile radius. Abandoned barn kittens, a horse, turtles, an ill-fated muskrat and several rescued bunnies were literally my "pet projects".  In fact, I spent much of my time nursing tiny creatures in the hopes of accomplishing my ultimate goal:  dressing them in doll clothes.

And, because "aggressive nurturing" is sort of my thing, these antics have continued into my adult life as well.

Over the course of our marriage my husband has put up with countless additions to our family
including pregnant cats, stray dogs, doves, love birds, chickens and two children.   The next time you see him, ask hunky hubby about the time I brought home "Meatball" - the tiny yowling kitten with an intestinal disease who followed us around the house leaving a brown liquid trail.  (He loves telling that story).

But, although I have loved animals dearly, there's always been a distinct separation between "us" and "them".  And I can't say I ever had that intense Marley-and-Me, call-your-pets-kids bonding experience that dog people all seem to share.

That is, until I met Barley.

Barley was a sweet, fat, milk-chocolate lab who we found roaming through the orchard near my parent's home.  He was overweight, had hot spots and a nasty ear infection so par-for-the-course we took him in.  Later we would learn that Barley had a congenital disorder which would cause him to lose his sight. But none of that mattered to either Bar or us and he quickly settled in as part of the family.
Barley and his seeing eye kid.

Barley was the best of what his breed is known for.  He loved "food that fell on the floor", camping trips, swimming at the lake and just being close to the family.  He put up with the children when they used him as a pillow and - because they are my kids - dressed him in doll clothes.  But despite the best care we could give, Barley's vision declined rapidly.  By the time we moved to Coeur d' Alene, Barley's eyes were nearly opaque and we could no longer take him to the lake or outside without a leash, for fear he would wander or become lost in our yard.

However, instead of becoming irritable as many creatures do as they lose autonomy, Barley seemed to appreciate his human guides all the more.  He would follow our voices and eventually memorized the floor plan of our new home, though something as simple as a laundry basket could send him into a tailspin.  Guests watched in amused horror as Barley made his way around the house with all the grace of a pinball - stumbling down stairs, running into walls and upsetting his water dish before finally settling into his "spot" on the couch, regardless of who happened to be occupying it at the time.

But as fond of this goofy dog as we were, it was my own illness - and Barley's role in my recovery - which finally clenched my personal membership into the "dog person" club.
Note:  My primary coping mechanism is sarcasm.

Barley had always been a fantastic napper, but as my days ground to a forcible halt and the weeks stretched into months throughout my recovery period, he seemed to sense how much I needed him and never left my side.  Often, before I opened my eyes from a nap I would allow my hand to drop to the side of the couch to find his soft fur to help ground me as I came back to reality.  Barley's "spot" transitioned to wherever I happened to be resting and there he stood guard throughout my illness - his milky eyes fixed on the wall in front of him and his head in his paws.

Barley taught me more about patience and acceptance than any formal doctrine ever could.  Sometimes when I gazed into his patient, milky eyes I felt certain that he must be the Buddah incarnate.

But then he would poop on the couch again and I felt fairly sure the Buddah would never do that.

Ever so slowly - one nap at a time - I began to gain strength again after being ill for so long.
But just as surely as I began to find my footing in the world, my sweet chemo nap companion began to lose his.  By the end of the year, Barley had lost his sight, hearing and often his continence - and yet I could not concede that perhaps the kindest thing I could do for my friend was to let him go.
After all, there were probably days when Barley looked at me and thought to himself - "Why don't they put that poor, suffering girl out of her misery?"  But eventually there came a day when even I could no longer deny it was time.  Saying goodbye to my "fur-baby" was one of the most difficult things I've ever done and something that I don't like to think about even today.
I think I posted more photos of Finn than my own children
during his puppyhood.
For too long, death played a leading role in our day-to-day existence.  We danced with death through my treatments, prepared for it, fought against it, cursed it and grieved it.  And when we finally began to rise up against death's oppressive rule over our lives - it took our  dog.  And frankly it was almost too much to bear.   

So, following in the footsteps of so many widows and widowers who remarry soon after the loss of their beloved - we decided to get a puppy.

Looking back, this was a ballsy move and it certainly could have backfired. But thankfully, we lucked out with Finnigan - the Boston Terrier mix who breathed life into our grieving family.  Since his entrance into our lives, Finn has brought light, love and only one shoe chewed beyond recognition (which is pretty good all things considered).
Puppy dog eyes.

Finn was the first friendship I made "AC" (after cancer) and it was through his big, brown puppy eyes that I finally began to make the transition from cancer patient back to caregiver and beyond that - just me.

The months after I completed treatment were a dark time.  Awash in a sea of grief, I struggled to find my bearings or even put words to the questions that lurked in the shadows.  Life felt unexpectedly heavy and uncertain in a way that I had no experience with.  And because I left no breadcrumbs to mark my way, even my most devoted support team could not lead me from the woods.

But here was this little creature who did not care that my body lay broken and scarred.  He did not know, nor need to know, the girl who was lost along the way.  Finn loved us unconditionally - because we were his.  

And eventually that's all that really mattered.                                                                                                                                                      
Is there anything better than puppy snuggles?  I think not.
Four-legged therapy sessions.
Puppy Love.
Rebel without a cause.
There are not enough doggie treats in Petco to repay my fuzzy little fur-babies for all they have given to our family.

Sweet Bar stayed beside me while the proverbial rug was ripped from beneath our feet.  And little Finn taught our whole family how to pick up the pieces and move on.  In their own way, they each helped us to heal.  And through their friendship I finally achieved official "dog person" status.

So, to all the people out there who take their dogs to visit Santa, allow them to take up 2/3 of the bed, purchase ridiculously expensive food for them and put up with chewed footware - I get it now.  I really do.

Four-legged therapists are worth every penny and sacrificed hours of sleep we could possibly give.  And I wouldn't have it any other way (even if it means opening the sliding glass door for the umpteenth time this morning).

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ted talks and drinking games.

Well, many weeks and countless neurotic checks of the Tedx Spokane website later - the grand reveal is finally here!  Watch it and weep (seriously, this might make you cry a little - fair warning if you are watching from work).  And so, without further adieu - here are the 18 minutes that turned me into a crazy person for the months leading up to TedxSpokane:;search%3Aheather%20caro

And, because I am all about getting the most YouTube hits enjoyment packed into every blog experience, I have also taken the liberty of putting together a companion piece.  

The Official Heather Caro Ted Talk Companion Drinking Game

Disclaimer:  Any beverage may be utilized for this game, however drinking copious amounts of grape soda may cause participants to develop sudden-onset diabetes.  Coffee is also not a good idea.  In fact, utilizing any beverage other than filtered, purified or vitamin enriched water to play The Official Heather Caro Ted Talk Companion Drinking Game is not advised.  Proceed at your own risk.

Each player must take one sip of their drink each time Heather Caro:

Says "cancer".

Mentions "pink".

Talks about "ribbons".

Lists a product which has been pink-washed at some juncture.

Mentions a pink-washed product you yourself have witnessed and/or purchased in the past.

Makes you want to eat take-out fried chicken against your better judgement.

Each player must take two sips of their drink each time:

Heather Caro laughs at her own jokes.

Heather Caro, an audience member or you gets something in their eye.  

Each player must finish whatever is left in their glass when:

Heather Caro finally makes it off the TEDx stage without tripping, barfing or sobbing uncontrollably and breathes an enormous sigh of relief - We did it!!


I hope you have chosen your beverage wisely and are now sufficiently hydrated.  Thank you so much to all of the wonderful local and not-so-local peeps who managed to shirk their work responsibilities to come see me that day. I cannot tell you how much it meant to see your sweet faces in the audience. And to all of those who couldn't be there but wanted to - please know you were up on stage with me. 

And - because it takes a village to cross something this big off the ol' bucket list - special thank you's belong to: 

Hunky Hubby-who talks me off the "I'm-not-at-all-qualified-to-be-doing-this" ledge more often than I'd like to admit. I love you.  Thanks for always being my biggest fan.

My amazing, talented brother, Justin Howard who made time in his busy schedule to craft the slides I used for the second half of the speech.  He puts up with my terminal lack of tech-saavy on a regular basis and can interpret my hair-brained ideas with surprising ease. He's a gem, that one - and one of my very best friends.  And of course my talented best-ie Jenny Borst, who illustrates my story with her stunning photography, all the while playing a leading role in keeping me sane through the process of living it.

Rebecca Schroeder, Terri Lovins and my amazing speech coach, Mike Poutiatine who listened to my ideas, red-lined multiple drafts, gave not-too-harsh critiques and helped me hone my story. Thank you for being in equal turns the best editors, therapists and friends a girl could ask for.  *Muah*

And thank you to the rest of my family, friends and supporters as well. I cannot emphasize enough

just how important giving this speech was for keeping my bowels regular my personal healing process. Finding a way to summarize my experience with breast cancer as well attempt to impart a singular message of wisdom within such tight time constraints was no easy task - but I am so proud of where the journey has taken me.  And being able to stand up on the TEDx stage while sharing my story with the world - all the while saying a giant f-you to cancer - was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life.  

Literally, figuratively, and in all the ways possible - I could not be here without each of you.  I am so grateful for your love and support.  

And, with that sentiment, I'd better wrap this up before we all end up taking another drink.  

Love you.  That is all.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

There are some things we do because we believe in them.

If I had to make a top-10 list of my least favorite things, public speaking would rate right up there with emptying bedpans and having my blood drawn.  In fact, public speaking makes me so uncomfortable that every time I type the words "public speaking" my palms start to sweat - which is really going to gross my husband out if he uses the computer after me today.

But it's not as though this is a new phenomenon.

I was the nerd-before-it-was-cool kid who usually knew all the answers in school but would sooner chew off their own arm than raise it.  I blush easily, sweat frequently and prefer the view from the sidelines.  And though as an adult I've learned how to succeed in spite of a predisposition toward awkwardness - being front and center is certainly not something I enjoy. Which makes my latest endeavor all the more insane.

On Monday, October 13th, sweaty palms and all, I will be giving a TEDx talk entitled "Think Beyond Pink:  How to Practice Meaningful Philanthropy".

For those of you not familiar with the TED talk series - get thee to youtube.  TED talks are thought provoking, succinct speeches given by amazing people from all walks of life and are enormously popular in nerd circles.  Being asked to take part in this speech series is my version of The Super Bowl - and something to check off the ol' bucket list.  This is one of my all time favorites:

Now I have given a fair number of cancer-issue-related speeches over the last couple of years but nothing like this.  The bar for TED talks is set outrageously high.  And because of the nature of my talk, I will be sharing incredibly intimate details of my life with a crowd of strangers - while somehow managing to impart wisdom - all in about 17 minutes.  To make matters worse, because the speech is filmed, if I mess up, trip, sweat excessively or vomit - it will live on the inter webs forever.

*Cue sweaty palms*

Giving a Ted talk is an introverts greatest nightmare.  And I volunteered to take part.

Some of you (namely, my mom) may ask why I feel compelled to do something which causes me to lose sleep, fret and generally act like an insecure crazy person for two solid months in preparation for the big day.  Fair question.

It is because I must.
  Fair Warning:  Anyone who shares this image
on Monday may be unfriended on the spot.

Though of course I did not plan it this way, the TEDx Spokane event takes place smack dab in the middle of Pinktober - the month I have grown to despise for its commercialized exploitation of a very serious disease.  And of all the 31 days in Pinktober, the day of my speech - October 13th - happens to fall on Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

Now, metastatic breast cancer is a topic that is not discussed often in the month of pink.  Probably because people don't die of early stage breast cancer so it's easier to paint a pretty pink picture.

But there is no cure for metastatic disease, and despite what early-detection awareness campaigns will have you believe, an estimated 30% of those diagnosed with early stage breast cancer will go on to develop stage IV disease - no matter what the treatment or stage at diagnosis.  And even more concerning,  despite abysmal 5-year survival rates for those diagnosed with advanced disease, only around 7% of all research funds are devoted to metastatic breast cancer treatments.

All of this combined should make Metastatic Breast Cancer Day a pretty big talking point in a month devoted to "awareness".

But interestingly enough, October 13th also has been deemed "No-Bra Day"(I could not make this up).  Because encouraging people to "set tatas free" is much more fun than worrying our pretty little heads about the 40,000 people who fail to meet Survivor criteria each year.
This. Is. Happening

Because - PINK!

And guess which message will be spreading like wildfire on Facebook pages throughout the land Monday morning?  

My money is on the liberated Ta-tas.

To be fair, before my own diagnosis I probably would not have keyed in to how insulting it is to devote a day to not wearing a bra in conjunction with a disease that causes people to have their breasts surgically removed. But come on, people - we have got to do better.

Which is why, in spite of the fact that my stomach may churn and my palms may sweat - I will take the stage tomorrow and tell my story.  Because it will take many, many voices to bring about real change - even if one of those voices shakes every so slightly while on stage.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Soldier, Interrupted.

I will never forget the first time I saw her.

I had recently returned home after my second hospitalization in less than a month.  This time for sepsis after a surgical site infection put an end to my breast reconstruction efforts - and very nearly to me.  Still encased in bandages with more drain tubes protruded from my body than an extra from a sci-fi movie  -  it seemed impossible to imagine this broken body would ever be whole once again.  And as insomnia held me captive within the cocoon of blankets and pillows where I took refuge, I searched the internet in vain for answers to questions that I could not yet voice.

And then, one day, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.

The picture was a gritty black and white image of a nude woman standing in a doorway.   Deep scars  laced across her young chest, mirroring my own fresh wounds.  And I could not help but see myself in her eyes - or at least a vision of what could be.

This woman was unequivocally beautiful.  

I cannot tell you how just long I stared at her image, trying to reconcile my own mutilated chest with this portrait of strength and resilience.  Time dripped like honey as these two dramatically different versions of self were gradually superimposed and allowed to meld.

Photo by David Jay
Finally, in a narcotic-induced haze I read through every single comment listed beneath that picture.  And though the majority were kind and supportive, there were also the predictably negative comments made by the anonymous trolls who lurk on the inter webs. 

Their words struck a nerve as raw as my own unhealed wounds and I cried - hard - as I came face to face with dark fears I had yet to verbalize even to myself.

"I'd kill myself if that happened to me".  "Is that your brother?"  "Nice tits".

Some of the words were so harsh I winced from the pain. And yet, they could not detract from the truth.

This woman was still stunning.  She was strong and brave. Most importantly she was still standing after cancer had done its worst.  There she was, gazing back as if to say "Is that all you've got?"  

Seeing this image was the first time I had ever seen mastectomy scars portrayed honestly.  It was through this portrait that I would learn to see myself in this same lovely lighting and not just the neon glare of a medical textbook.  Later I would learn the image was part of a larger collection by David Jay, aptly named the SCAR Project and the brave women he portrayed instantly became my idols for their fearlessness and ability to face this disease with such brutal honesty.
Barbie Ritzco in Soldier, Interrupted. By David Jay

One of the women - Barbie Ritzco - made a particularly strong impression on me.   She was a member of some of the support groups I belonged to and had made a name for herself as a leader in the breast cancer community.  Her nickname there was The Warrior Queen - and the title was well deserved.

Barbie was  diagnosed with stage IIIb invasive breast cancer at the age of 36 while deployed in Afghanistan as a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marines. There were no medical facilities where she was stationed and because she did not want to leave her fellow Marines, she chose to wait several months to address the lump she had found in her left breast.  Finally, she could wait no longer and in February of 2011 Barbie was sent home to begin the battle of her life. Though her treatments were intense and the tumor did not respond to chemotherapy, Barbie said it was being forced to abandon her post with the Marines which she struggled with the most.

Barbie was a soldier in every sense of the word.

This year I was lucky enough to get to know her a little - though our paths never crossed in "real life".  She was spunky and kind and a little rough around the edges - and much, much tougher than I could ever imagine being.  She ran marathons while still undergoing radiation treatment and was a single mother of a young boy.  Besides participating in the SCAR project, Barbie was a fierce advocate for breast cancer issues and BRCA gene testing.  To further educate others, she shared her story in The Pink Moon Lovelies:  Empowering Stories of Survival, a book written by her friend, Nicki Boscia Durlester.  Barbie also co-founded Flat and Fabulous, a support group dedicated to women who choose to forgo reconstructive therapy after mastectomy - the first of its kind.

We bonded over tattoos, our shared decision to forgo reconstruction and a disdain for pink fluff.  I followed her accomplishments as she prepped for the Tough Mudder run and cheered her on when she was named Ambadassador for Handful - an awesome lingerie company that offers options for mastectomy forms.  And I also followed along this summer when she announced that her cancer had returned - and this time it had spread to her liver.
This was the sunset in Cd'A on the day Barbie died.
I have to say, this was one night when pink just seemed fitting.
Photo by Alex Castagno

But we knew Barbie had been in tough spots before and pulled through with flying colors.  And, doing what we do best, the entire breast cancer community cheered her on and stayed updated as she once again faced aggressive cancer treatments.  The treatments were severe and she became ill - critically ill - and was intubated in the intensive care unit.

Typical of Barbie, she fought back, grew stronger and was discharged home.  And as tough, positive and full of life as she was, we knew that if anyone could get through this, it was Barbie.

But tough doesn't matter when it comes to cancer.

Barbie Ritzco died Friday September 26th, surrounded by loved ones. And our hearts, collectively, were broken.

There is, of course, no question that Barbie lived an amazing life.  She accomplished more in her years than most of us could in 10 lifetimes.  She was strong in the face of adversity and she did her best to make a difference. She was a good Marine and a great mom. She wanted desperately to live.  Barbie Ritzco was her own woman.  Barbie Ritzco was all of us.

And she is gone.

So rest easy, Soldier.  Your job is done.  We who are left will carry your post - but we will never forget.

Fuck Cancer.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Broken Pieces.

For those with a front row seat to my life, it's no secret I've struggled to find my bearings since completing treatment.

Like the still-standing ruins near the epicenter of an earthquake, delicate cracks - both physical and psychological - lace through my foundation.  And though many are invisible to passersby, the damage can at times be overwhelming.   

This has not been the victory lap year I imagined.   

Ghosts of what I have endured haunt my present and make surprise guest appearances at 
inopportune moments.  They walk with me through empty surgical corridors and while reading patient reports.  Sometimes these ghosts unpack their bags for an extended stay on particularly weighty calendar dates such as the anniversary of a surgery, treatment start or diagnosis.  
And they dance, tauntingly, each time I am asked if my battle has been won.

Active treatment may be finished, but my battle with cancer will never be over.  Or at least not in the way most people assume.  What I could not have known when I began this journey is that survivorship has its own set of trials and perils.  

With a required followup schedule charted out over the next 10 years, treatment acquired co-morbities such as premature menopause, osteopenia and risks of cardiomyopathy to contend with - combined with an ever-present possibility of recurrence, I live with near constant reminders that "normal life" is something of the past.  

Though not always discussed in "polite company", I've learned that nearly all cancer survivors suffer some degree of PTSD (In this case - Post Treatment Stress Disorder).  And due to unique issues faced when diagnosed at a young age, survivors in this age bracket may have a more difficult time post treatment.  In fact, a recent study published in a leading oncology journal found young people diagnosed with cancer have a nearly 60% increased risk of committing suicide or attempted suicide as compared with non-cancer population - with the greatest increase occurring the first year post treatment.  Which is why organizations such as Stupid Cancer, Young Survival Coalition and First Descents - all of which I am involved in to some degree or another - are imperative to supporting this population.  

But embracing the "new normal" after cancer - even with help - is easier said than done.

In the Japanese culture, ancient ceramics artists once filled the cracks of their broken pottery with veins of gold. These Kintsugi masters believed that when something has suffered damage, it adds character.  It is, in fact, the flaws that give these pieces their true beauty.

Since learning about this ancient art, I've become rather obsessed with the practice and the philosophy behind it.  And recently, after a long and cathartic talk about life and the art of mending broken-ness, my talented friend Marci, herself a ceramics master - though she would never describe herself as such - gifted me with a beautiful piece of her work that I couldn't help but share.  

The lovely, botanical-inspired mug is laced in gold and serves as a tangible reminder that although I cannot erase what happened to me or ignore the damage that's been done, I will learn to fill the cracks left in cancer's wake with a mortar crafted from humor, honesty, grit and grace.   It is all that I have - I'm fresh out of gold.  But it is enough.

More importantly, the gift is a gentle reminder that perhaps there is beauty yet to be found after all - which is something I needed to hear right about now.

Marci - Thank you so much for the lovely piece - and for understanding.  Your friendship is such a great gift. Let's have a glass of something bubbly very soon.

And for those of you interested in owning one of her pieces for yourself - message me.  I might have a connection.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tag a Friend.

Now I can't speak for all chemo kids but as far as I'm concerned, October - or rather the more aptly named Pinktober - can take a hike.

As a reminder, Pinktober is the time of year when retailers throughout the land come together to slap shiny pink ribbons on various merchandise to make money hand over fist promote breast cancer "awareness".

Who's winning the Race for the Cure?
And because pretty much any product is more appealing with a little "philanthropic bling" - and there is no regulation on pink-ribbon use - over the years marketing geniuses have brought us pink ribbon toilet paper, tic-tacs, canned soup, football uniforms, make up, cleaning solutions and my personal favorite - bucket o' chicken.  Because hey, why not combine the number one (heart disease) and number two (breast cancer) killers of women with 11 herbs and spices?


Ironically, many pink-ribbon-wielding products contain known carcinogens.  And donations provided to cancer causes by said companies are often either limited, unstated or capped. Which means despite the onslaught of Pinktober breast cancer "awareness" campaigns there is precious little progress being made towards preventing or curing breast cancer.

And all of this irony tied up in a pretty pink ribbon tends to cause me - and many others in the crowds I run with these days - to grit my teeth throughout pretty much the entire month of Pinktober.

But lately I've noticed a disturbingly unseasonal pink leak.  Namely, the latest round of breast cancer awareness "selfies"on Facebook.  This game involves 1.  Posting a photo without makeup.  2.  Tagging a friend with instruction to do the same.  3.  Reading the comments friends inevitably post about how gorgeous you are without makeup.
Anyone else see the irony in this display?  

Awareness huh?

This game supports breast cancer in the same way Paula Deen supports diabetes "awareness".  Or instagramming a photo of your lunch supports Somalian refugee "awareness."

It doesn't.

But because I now have your attention and you are hopefully taking a break from taking pictures with your junk in a sock to promote testicular cancer awareness (also circulating on the inter-webs currently) here are some actual statistics about breast cancer that are even more concerning than "friends without makeup".

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 232,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed this year.  

40,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2014.

And here are some statistics that I have been particularly "aware" of since my own diagnosis:

Women ages 15-35 and 35-40 die more frequently from breast cancer than any other cancer.  

Lest we forget what real breast cancer
 awareness selfies look like.

And compared to older women, young women generally face more aggressive cancers and have lower survival rates.

"Awareness" of this disease - however well meaning - isn't enough.  We are dying out here, folks.  And that's not a euphemism.

To all of my sweet friends and family who have tagged me in posts or posted your gorgeous naked faces - I love you so much.  You are beautiful and kind - and I know you support me in this fight.

And to the rest of you out there - if you enjoy wearing pink, please continue to do so.  If you like to post photos without makeup  - by all means, go nuts.  And if you like to post photos of your junk in a sock - well that's just weird but I'm not here to judge.  All I ask is that you please be an informed consumer and don't be swayed by the almighty pink ribbon.

Think before you pink.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hate is a strong word.

I have come to the realization that the word 'hatred' - for most people - is not necessarily synonymous with 'phlebotomist'.

But as I sludge through the "routine" scans, follow up appointments and lab work I am required to complete every three months - the word doesn't seem to hold nearly enough weight.

Particularly on the heels of a frustrating run-in with a condescending, needle-wielding tech who unfortunately happened to be on duty when I stopped by to have my labs drawn.

As I recall - this was the image on Elvira's name badge.
 Try to avoid her if you can.
Now, I will concede I've never been known for my fabulous vasculature.  Due - in part - to my "pocket size" stature as well as inheriting the fuzzy end of the genetic lollipop stick - I am not the girl who ever leant an arm to nursing school classmates intent on honing their IV skills.

And after a year of chemotherapy, countless lab draws and IV starts, my vein status would now rival an octogenarian heroin addict.

So, my beef with this particular tech (we'll call her Elvira) is not her failures - which were perhaps inevitable - but rather her dismissive demeanor.  And this, in my book, is inexcusable.

It is also something that can easily happen when caregivers get so wrapped up in accomplishing a task that they forget their "task" is also a person.

Me (rolling up my sleeve):  "I need to warn you - I am a terrible stick and you will need a butterfly."

Elvira (Giving me a quick smile and a wilting "that's what they all say" look as she ties a latex bow around my arm):  "Oh, ok."

Elvira quickly stabs into - and misses - her best option, the tiny colorless vessel in my right AC.  *Heavy silence*  She calls to a coworker who - after much fishing - attempts and finally fails to salvage the stick.

Elvira feels my fingers - now numb from lack of circulation.  "Your hands are ice cold," she quips - as though I am somehow to blame for her botched attempt.

Poke number two also fails to produce and I know from past experience we are running out of options. The only viable vessels left are deep and run close to sensitive tendons and nerves.  And I do not want to have to return tomorrow.

Me:  "Can you please check to see if Vascular Access is available?"

Elvira (Gouging into my other arm): "They usually only do port access."

Me:  "I know, but they've had to come in the past."

Elvira (Half-heartedly asking a coworker if IV therapy was in house on Saturdays as she fished with the needle for another elusive vessel):  "If I were you I would ask for a port."

Me (Closing my eyes in an attempt to remain zen-like as I remind myself that this woman could not possibly understand what I had recently gone through):  "I had a port."

Elvira:  "Oh what, it didn't work?"

Me (Wincing as she gouged a nerve - both literal and figurative - I recall the bulging lump in my chest I was so ecstatic to have removed months ago):  "No, it's just that I'm done with treatment. I don't need it anymore."
This is NOT your patient!

Finally, they break out the hot packs (that should have been used from the start) and manage to access one of the lacy surface veins that emerge on the back of my left hand.  The requisite tubes are filled - drop by painful drop - before this vessel too gives way. Both arms and one hand are stippled with tiny bruises and because Elvira was unable to retrieve a hold-tube I will need to return next week for more Bengazi-style treatment when additional labs are ordered for yet another upcoming appointment.

Nearly an hour after I first entered the hospital, I finally emerge - close to tears and feeling defeated. I want to give up.  I want to walk away from that building and never return.  I want to fashion an intricate Elvira voodoo doll in retribution for making me feel so devalued and helpless.  But instead I order a latte and vow to write a blog about my experiences.

Being a patient is humbling.

And I am sorry to say I have encountered many "Elvira's" during my experiences on the other side of the table.  Like the MRI tech who asked me if I had been experiencing any symptoms after the first set of scans searching for brain mets had been taken or the nurse who handed me an appointment card for a mammogram  - months after my bilateral mastectomy.

But thankfully, for every rotten interaction I've had - I've had ten-fold more experiences that have helped to restore my faith in the medical system and remind me of why I became a nurse in the first place.

I'm keeping this on hand - just in case.
That just didn't happen over the weekend.

I think it's important to remember, as caregivers, no matter how crummy our day may be (and I'm quite certain Elvira was not enjoying herself Saturday morning) our patient is having a much worse time of it.

We may not always be able to save our patients from suffering -  but it is absolutely essential we are kind.

And though, I know - I know - how busy you are, please take the time to be intentional in your practice.  It really does make a difference.  As cliche as it may sound - it is the little things that end up leaving an imprint in the lives of the people you are taking care of.

So, make eye contact and talk to people - not over them.  Bring warm blankets/ice chips/a clean gown when you say you will.  And remember to explain procedures, because although this may be your whole world, it's not something the patient may be familiar with - and that can be scary.  Also, say you're sorry when you hurt someone - and mean it.  We can tell the difference.

But beyond that, please remember that the frustrating patient you can't get an IV/NGtube/Foley into in room two-twenty-whatever - is someone's child or parent.  That patient might be your coworker.  And though I hope this is never the case - that patient could be you some day.

So be kind.

Because life is hard enough without having an Elvira to contend with.