Saturday, October 22, 2016

Date night in the infusion ward

Yesterday being a cisplatin appointment, I was in the infusion ward from 2 to 9:30. But what better place for a Friday night date?

As I had been unable to eat the dinner I ordered (explanation below), Wendy, who was already on her way, stopped at a convenience store and brought me Cheerios and milk at 7 or so. Perfect! She is a lifesaver. We could chat, or could have watched TV but there is really nothing on. Still, we had our books to read, and being in the Luxury Suite I had a bed on which I could and did fall asleep. It was almost too much excitement for one date. To sum up, with apologies to Omar Khayyam and his first English translator, Edward Fitzgerald (see the wikipedia article for a discussion of Fitzgerald's highly non-literal translation and his own interesting justification thereof):

A cup of cheerios, a touch of milk, and Thou
listening to me snore in the infusion ward,
ah, this day, this moment is paradise enow!

Now, as to why I couldn't eat: It wasn't because of the chemo; I was feeling nauseous long before that kicked in. It's the pyschosomatic reaction I've mentioned earlier. I asked Tom about it and he said oh yeah, that is a real phenomenon
they see often. Their worst case was a guy who couldn't even set foot in the medical center without throwing up; they had to move his infusions to a different hospital. Another person would react to seeing an infusion nurse in the grocery store. (Hey don't shop at the QFC on Juanita Drive, do you?) I've noticed that even looking at the hospital menu (which actually has some good food) makes me feel queasy. In fact just typing the words gave me a twinge. It's interesting how the brain and the digestive tract are linked in that way: seasickness, for example, and as I understand it the highest concentrations of the neurotransmitter serotonin are in the brain and the digestive tract. Before your first chemo, they warn you that ``you cannot control nausea and vomiting by willpower''. Okay, but surely this reaction to simply being in the ward can be defeated? I need to get more serious
about a mental imagery/self-hypnosis approach and see if it works. Meanwhile, thank goodness my wonderful wife brings me cheerios on a Friday evening!

On the afternoon half of my stay I had Molly again, and learned something new about her. Very few people read ``classic literature''---after high school I read almost none until I got on this literature kick a few years back. At the moment I'm reading Anna Karenina, and as I had it with me, I asked her if she'd read it. ``I didn't care for it that much; too gossipy. I like Dostoevsky more, especially The Brothers Karamazov.'' Cool! I think by ``too gossipy'' she means in a soap opera-ish way. But if it's a soap opera it's a darn good one. In fact I'd like to announce this breaking news to the world: Tolstoy was a great writer!  I have the famous Karamazov brothers on my future reading list, but I think it's over a thousand pages (Anna is a mere 900) and it may be a while before I atttempt it. In any case, Molly's interest in literature was a pleasant surprise.

I have to start my infusions at 2 because my topology class gets out at 1:20. When I learned I would have to start chemo again this summer, I made up my mind I would not give up the class, and fortunately I was able to work it out with the Med people (who honestly bend over backward to accomodate my schedule; they're awesome). I am so glad it worked, because my class is just fantastic. This was unexpected because I thought with 50 students (now down to about 47)  it would be very difficult to get students engaged, speaking up etc. On the contrary, it might be the most engaged, lively class I've ever had. At last count I could
list 19 different students who've had questions or comments, and often it turns into a real dialogue. I wish I could learn more names---so far I know maybe 20---but the students seem quite impressed that I even have that many. Now I'm determined to get them all.

  My system of secret mnemonic nicknames works pretty well. It's unlikely but theoretically possible that one of my students could find this blog, so if you are such a student and recognize yourself below, please know that even when silly, the names are chosen with respect and affection. It's just a way to help me memorize. A few examples: Rasputin, Kate Winslet, Wagnerian opera guy (Tristan, as in Tristan und Isolde), Stylin', Jesse James, the fake Italian (third generation; doesn't speak the language), the Norwegian (his name isn't Norwegian, but somehow he looks Scandinavian and has the same first name as Jay's Norwegian friend), Canadian mountain man (Jasper), Punk-rocker, Compact Disc (first name Qidi, pronounced like the Italian for CD),
Mathematical Bakery woman, the Twins (two Chinese women who hang out together and thankfully use English first names here, as many of them do; they don't look at all alike), and more. Then there are the ones who don't need a nickname; there's a ``Ken'', well, two in fact, but only one ever speaks up; and a female Jordan who is the lone math grad student in the class. Also a Chinese student who has what appear to be serious burn scars on his neck and part of his face. It's unfortunate, but inevitable, that this immediately becomes the recognition clue. He's a great student.

The main problem is getting the women to speak up (there are only nine, alas). I've never come up with a good way to encourage them, because any way you do it, it risks putting even more pressure on them, as though they're obligated to speak up for the good of all. One way that sometimes works is to put encouraging notes on homeworks, but I have a grader since the course is so big. Or if any of the silent types, male or female, ask a question after class, I try to compliment them on a good question and say Hey, you should ask questions in class. Wednesday this finally worked; Kate Winslet asked a great question in class!

I was getting to the point that I thought there was only one solution: Bring in the formidable Maddie as an undergrad in disguise, to set an example. She's the lone female in my algebraic topology reading course with three males (the Italian student, an undergrad, and one other), plus me. Maddie is awesome. She immediately established herself as the leader of the pack, and pretty much runs the show. Now that I've had a chance to hear her present ideas at the board, it's clear that she really is good. Great geometric intuition combined with computational skill and precision.

By the way a high school student visited my topology class on Wednesday. Took calculus in 9th grade and moved on to other things, including topology. These prodigy types grow like weeds around here, I tell ya. I hope he comes to the UW, but if he's as good as he sounds he'll probably go to someplace like Stanford or the Stanford of the East, you know, what's that place called? Oh right, Harvard.

Well, enough dex-fueled babbling for now, but it sure helps take my mind off the chemo! Oh darn...
I made it to 7:30 pm without the hiccups (a record), but they have just started...

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