Brenda's Hospital Stay
In the fall of 1977, Brenda's doctor, Dr. H. Hamblin Letton, expressed concern about the amount of fibroid tissue in her breasts - that it might be hiding something. He gave medication to reduce that fibroid tissue, but things were still ambiguous. He suggested a biopsy, though expressing some confidence about the outcome.
One early morning in early October we went to Georgia Baptist Hospital for what we thought would be a routine biopsy, and I camped out in the 8th floor room from which this picture was taken.
After about an hour, I received a phone call in the room that will forever be stamped indelibly in my memory. A rather abrupt female voice on the other end said "This thing is malignant! We are going to have to go ahead with the surgery." In total shock, I must have said something like "Oh, God!" My tone must have conveyed a lot, because that voice on the other end of the line broke, and it was helpful to me to realize that this was a feeling human being on the other end of the line.
The story that came to us later from the operating room was a very touching human story. After doing the initial incision, they waited for an initial pathology report. We were told that Dr. Letton, seeing the report, said "It wasn't supposed to be this!" and sat down and cried. Everyone at the hospital knew Brenda, and all felt it deeply, but it was very touching to us to have a surgeon who so deeply felt for the welfare of his patients.
We had discussed options, so I knew what "go ahead with the surgery" meant - a radical mastectomy. The report was that the tumor was large and of a fast-growing type, positioned flat against the breasbone, making it difficult to detect without the biopsy. So rather than wait for further tests, Dr. Letton went ahead immediately with the surgery.
In one of the darkest times in my life, I was alone at the hospital since we had considered this a minor procedure. I called Bonnie, and she came immediately. We cried and prayed together, and I will be forever grateful to Bonnie for her presence and caring in that tough time.
Brenda became aware of this process upon awaking from surgery and looking at the clock, recognizing that the time was too long for a simple biopsy. I was very grateful to see her back in the room - no matter how black the time, it is better when she is present. And at this time I just desperately needed to see her.
Spending as much time as I could with Brenda, but driving back and forth to home to see about the boys, I was incredibly anxious for the next three days waiting for the final pathology to tell us more about what we were dealing with. On one of the drives home, I heard a song on the radio that just rang in my head during those three days "The windows of the world are covered with rain. When will the Sun come out again?" Somehow that just captured my heart at that time and I couldn't get it out of my head.
Brenda's parents were taking care of Jeff (age 9) and Mark (age 7) after school and I went there to see them one afternoon. I took them out in the back yard to talk with them about things, to tell them as much as I though appropriate. But it just overwhelmed me and I started crying, hugging them there in the yard. Jeff put his arm around me and said "It'll be alright, Daddy." That is a treasured memory - I certainly needed assurance at that moment.
We were extremely agitated and frustrated at receiving no word about the pathology. Brenda thought she might get some early word from the lab. Finally Dr. Letton came in for his visit with her and pulled the pathology report out of his pocket. He told us that he knew everybody was interested but that he wanted her to get the report from him. We waited, almost holding our breath.
His first words were, "This is not all that bad!" I had been thinking terrible things, so this was a great relief to us. He had told us large, fast-growing tumor - how could it not be terrible? He proceeded to explain carefully to us about the recent research on adjuvant chemotherapy and radiation in such cases and that the survival rate was approaching 90%. We had been told more like 50% so this was a great source of hope for us. The chemotherapy and radiation was daunting, but at least now there was a carefully developed plan.
On the way home that evening, I heard another song which has remained a source of hope to me to this day "Morning has broken, like the first morning". It captured my heart in this time of renewed hope and I found myself singing it almost every day during the next few months.
The time of bringing Brenda home from the hospital to just sit on the couch with the boys and watch TV was just a time of overwhelming joy to me. Just to have her home after all of this. The embodiment of the hope of some normalcy and recovery, and the hope of survival of this terrible threat.
It was a time of gratitude and recognition of the providence of God and the kindness of our friends and family. I consider it providential that we had just had the opportunity to go to the Marriage Enrichment retreat, talking a lot about our marriage and relationship and renewing our vows. The time together helped give us strength for this trial.
Brenda's family was wonderfully supportive, and our friends from church brought us meals every day for two weeks after Brenda came home from the hospital. There was really an outpouring of love and care for which we were very grateful.
With all the love and support, and having her home from the hospital, things were ok for me as long as I was with her. But when I was away from her, all the dark fears of losing her and of the things we were facing would come flooding in on me. I remember the words of Dr. Gus Verdery as he visited us in the hospital. He counseled with us about things and invited us in to talk with him any time. The thing he said that has stuck indelibly in my mind was "Sometimes you need to talk with someone you don't have to take care of." It struck me as strange at the time, but played out strongly in the months of chemotherapy and radiation to come. I would get very fearful, but didn't want to share my fears with Brenda and increase her burden. So we did need to talk with others not so close to us. It convinced me of the need for counseling in times of deep stress.
But I treasure the memory of the times we spent together during the tough year that followed. She had an intense radiation therapy series over a five week period (200 rads/day for five weeks for a total of 5000 rads!) Facing a two-year chemotherapy treatment with methotrexate, cytoxan and 5-fluorouracil, she was often nauseated. But she coped amazingly well and kept a good spirit. She sometimes had difficulty sleeping, and we got in the habit of me reading to her at night from the James Herriot books, "All Creatures Great and Small", etc. These stories from an English veterinarian made contact with us after our year in Wales, and were comforting to both of us. So I remember it as a time of closeness and am grateful for the time.
This is being written with a look-back time of almost 30 years, so it is written with a great sense of gratitude for life. One of Brenda's favorite lines is "Don't waste your sorrows!", and that time of sorrow and fear has given her many opportunities to minister to other breast cancer victims. This only touches on a little bit of the story, but we do want to bear witness of gratitude to God for life and gratitude to loving family and friends.