Metastatic cancer and the matching walkers

They made a regal couple, the elderly man and woman sitting in Room 19. She was the patient, he the supportive husband. She sat in the treatment cot while he sat in a chair pulled near her bedside. Together, they greeted me with their warm smiles as I walked into their room.

They both had full heads of healthy, silvery hair that shimmered from the overhead fluorescent bulbs. Their eyes were intense and watchful, and their crescent lips, framing big, teethy welcoming smiles, stretched like thick, pink rubberbands across their lower faces. He was impeccably dressed in conservative, mid-season wear, including a green layering-sweater. She was in a threadbare hospital gown, clearly confident and stylish despite her outfit.

After introductions and the shake of our hands, I learned that they were both in their early eighties and had been married all of sixty years. Sixty years! Can you believe that? How amazing. I congratulated both of them on achieving such a milestone.

“I know where I’m going,” she laughed, looking heavenward, “for putting up with him all of these years.” He laughed harder at her words than she did.

This, ultimately, explained the matching walkers that were parked against the counter in Room 19. Who needed matching rings for a 60th anniversary present, anyway? I would think that I, too, would be more practical on my 60th anniversary. I noticed these walkers immediately upon entering the room. His and hers. Identical. Front wheels, back posts with thick rubber stoppers, and a right-sided hand brake on each. Greenish-blue in color. Her’s had feminine clothing casually strewn over the front bar.

She was 82, to be exact. “He’s a few years older than me,” she jokingly added, dismissively nodding toward her husband, “I’ll always be his spring chicken.” By triage notes, she had presented with a two-week history of worsening abdominal pain “that came in waves,” mainly to the right upper quadrant. “But right now,” she told me, “it isn’t so bad.” It seemed to be associated with any intake of food.

She still had her gallbladder and my first three thoughts of the cause of her pain were gallbladder, gallbladder, and gallbladder. Of course, elderly women thoroughly enjoy stumping us in the medical field, so I also entertained other suspected reasons for her pain–an ileus (where the bowels are less efficient in moving air or material forward), a bowel obstruction (where the bowels kink on themselves and prevent any forward passage), referred pain from the heart or lungs, an atypical urine infection, or some form of peptic ulcer disease.

I questioned her further. She had no fever. No change in bowel movements. Some occasional nausea and bloating. Then, I asked her one last question, whose answer raised my suspicions beyond the normal concerns.

“Do you have a cancer history, Mrs. Brown?”

“Actually,” she answered reflectively, “I do. I had breast cancer about a year ago.” She looked over at her husband and smiled. “Remember those days, dear?” She explained that she had undergone chemotherapy following a right mastectomy.

Oh no, I thought to myself. Add metastatic cancer to that list. Unfortunately, I have seen several cases of elderly patients with a remote history of cancer who had presented with a recurrence of their cancer, abdominal pain being their only complaint. I could only hope Mrs. Brown wouldn’t be in that category.

I did my exam on Mrs. Brown. Sure enough, she had significant abdominal pain to her right upper quadrant, but only if I was palpating deep in that area.

I explained my suspicions to her. We would need to test her urine, her blood, perform a chest x-ray, and finally, the most important of all the tests, perform a CT scan of her abdomen. That would effectively rule-out or rule-in my biggest concerns. Because we had just had a stroke patient and a trauma patient before her, I explained her workup may take a few hours time.

“Honey,” she said to her husband, “go ahead out to the car and take a nap. I’ll be all right in here. Dr. Jim,” she added, winking at me, “will take good care of me.”

Any other night, I would have worked hard to find an extra cot for Mr. Brown, but this night in the ER was crazy. I knew there were no available beds. “Go on, Mr. Brown,” I said, “you have a few hours nap time ahead of you. I’ll take good care of your wife.”

I left the room and let Mr. and Mrs. Brown have a private moment. Minutes later, I saw Mr. Brown shuffling down our hallway toward the exit sign, guiding his lonely walker along the way.

Slowly, Mrs. Brown’s results started to return. Her urine was clean. Her chest x-ray was unremarkable. Her blood work, however, returned with two concerns-a mild drop in her red blood cell and platelet counts and an elevation in three of her liver enzymes.

I entered her room to explain her results to her. And also to share that she was now second in line to go over for her CT scan. She was, however, napping. I softly strolled up to her lone walker to check it out more closely. It was spiffy. I’ve only seen aluminum and black walkers before, and was wondering if this was a custom paint job.

“I never wanted that thing,” Mrs. Brown said, my back to her, startling me. I turned around. She had awakened. “Edgar needed one. I was afraid he was going to fall. But you know men…he insisted that he didn’t need one. The only way I got him to finally accept using one was if I got one, too.”

I nodded. “They sure look nice,” I said. “Thank you,” she said, “they are identical. We call them “the twins.” If I had to use a walker I didn’t really need, then at least I was going to pick out a color that suited me.”

I smiled before remembering the business at hand. Slowly, I explained to Mrs. Brown what I had meant to explain when I first revisited her room. After finishing, I assured her that I would be back the minute her CT results returned.

An hour later, I walked, heavy-hearted, back into Mrs. Brown’s room, accompanied by her nurse. Mr. Brown had returned, his silvery hair now somewhat mussed up from his successful nap. The greenish-blue walkers, side by side again, seemed to present a fortified protective wall. I held her CT report in my hand.

“Good news or bad news?” she asked, as Mr. Brown leaned forward from his seat and grabbed her hand. I looked them both in their eyes.

“Not good,” I said. I went on to explain that Mrs. Brown’s liver, via CT, appeared abnormal. Not only did she have multiple liver lesions suspicious for metastatic disease, but she also had a solid liver mass that was partially obstructing her small bowels. As I spoke, I appreciated the tightening grip Mr. Brown’s hand took to Mrs. Brown’s.

We all took a deep exhalation when I finished my explanation. “Well,” Mrs. Brown said, “I guess that how she goes, then.” She looked over at the two walkers, side-by-side. “I guess I won’t be needing that thing much longer, Edgar.” Her eyes grew glassy, and I was surprised that she had focused her attention, after such devastating news, on the walker. After spending a few more minutes with them, I stepped out to arrange for Mrs. Brown’s admission.

Rare or not, I still strongly believe in the power of prayer, sometimes if even to make me feel a little better about things. I’ll admit, though, that there are times when my prayers take on a very different, even bizarre, angle. The night I treated Mrs. Brown, I’m sure, my prayers were along that path. Although, to me, they were quite simple and clear.

I prayed that those walkers would sit side-by-side for another 60 years.

StorytellERdoc is an emergency physician who blogs at his self-titled site, StorytellERdoc.

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