Sometimes I wonder if I was a cat in a former life. I love cats. I like sitting up high and looking out windows. There are times in my life when I would purr if I could. Case in point: my recent brush with death, which I won, thank you very much.
The first time I cheated death was on the Skykomish River, back in 1979. I worked for a magazine covering adventurous travel, and one of my co-workers ran a river-rafting company. Late that spring, when the rapids were still rushing and the water still snowmelt-cold, a group of us went out to scout the river for potential trips.
Because it was so cold, I rented a wetsuit, but I hadn’t put the headpiece on so I could hear my co-worker’s navigational instructions. The Skykomish that day, he later estimated, was rated at about 4-plus on a scale of 5 (1 equates to flatwater and 5 to, well, suicide). Not too far into the voyage, we wrapped on a rock and the icy waters swept me out of the raft.
Chaos ensued. Some of the rafters tried to get us off the rock, but one of them – another co-worker named Kyle – grabbed my headpiece to keep me from being swept downriver. A couple of years before, I had gone rafting on the south fork of California’s American River, where there’s a place known as Swimmer’s Rapids. It’s calm enough that rafters frequently disembark their boats and float down the river. The Skykomish was not like that, but that didn’t stop me, with the cold water diminishing my intelligence, from telling Kyle to let me go so I could swim downriver. He ordered me to get back into the boat. Slowly, I agreed.
Funny epilogue: I have never forgotten Kyle and always wanted to tell him how much I appreciated him saving my life. I finally found him on Facebook a few months ago and messaged him, expressing my gratitude and asking if he remembered me. His unexpected response: “In my eight years as a professional rafter, I probably saved a hundred people from drowning. So, no, sorry, I don’t remember you.”
I’m not sure this next instance counts as cheating death, but I was once on this flight into Houston during a rainstorm when it became clear that we were descending nowhere near an actual runway. We went up and around again and landed safely.
The next time I brushed up against death was also airline-related. A business trip to Sydney involved sitting in coach for a long stretch (really, not the right word, because I couldn’t). When I returned to the United States, I started having shortness of breath, and although I thought I was having an anxiety attack, when my doctor heard I’d just returned from Australia, he tersely said, “I’ll meet you in the emergency room.” An ensuing procedure showed multiple pulmonary emboli, aka blood clots, the things that kill people most of the time. My wife, the physician, still reminds me that I didn’t listen to her, and I still remind her that, even though I was in the hospital for a week, I’m still not dead.
Which brings us to late last year. Fran Leibowitz once wisely said, “Adolescence is the last time you’re excited to hear the phone is for you.” And in fact, as we age, the list of things we don’t want to hear gets longer. Way up high on the list is your gastroenterologist saying, “There’s this abnormality in your colon we need to investigate further because it might be malignant.”
Mine delivered this judgment to me recently. I much preferred the last thing he’d said to me ten years ago, which was, “See you in ten years.” Those ten years passed far too fast.
The recommended testing for these “abnormalities,” was something known as an endoscopic ultrasound. Of course, BOTH the colonoscopy and the ultrasound required drinking that charming overnight preparation that resembles Sprite that’s been both over-sweetened and over-salted. My hilarious gastroenterologist refers to this as a “tsunami-in-a-box.” There were three possible outcomes to the ultrasound: the abnormality was nothing; the abnormality was something, but could be excised during the course of the procedure; or the abnormality was something, and would require surgery. I got the Let’s Make A Deal equivalent of the mule behind door number 3: surgery.
The procedure is known as a partial colectomy. It involves removing the part of the colon where the suspected malignancy had taken up residence, along with everything else in the vicinity. Think about those massive urban renewal projects of the 1960s, where they’d rip out entire neighborhoods, and you have some idea of what happened to me.
The subsequent pathology report revealed that the malignancy had not spread. Physically, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus, and emotionally, I felt like I’d missed a plane that had later crashed. One of our friends who’d had colon cancer warned me that after the colectomy, I would fart more. As one who is all too familiar with flatulence, I had to ask, “How will I able to tell?”
So here I am, a testament to the value of regular colon screenings. I hesitate to call myself a “cancer survivor” because I never had to undergo chemotherapy, but unfortunately, whenever a physician asks any of my relatives if someone in their family had colon cancer, they have to say yes.
But I have cheated death once again. Six more lives to go, five if you count Houston.