About two months ago I had a dream that I sat on a park bench with Pope Francis like the old chums that I wish we were and when I woke up the only thing I remembered was that he said, “You came here for the people.”
I was pretty frustrated because that advice isn’t very transparent. He could’ve pulled a Babe Ruth in The Sandlot and said, “Hop over the fence and get the ball,” or “Legends never die, kid,” or “Drop out of school right now Lauren and use your tuition money to buy a Jeep and never look back.” But nope, dream world Pope Francis gave me a whimsical clue and left the rest up to future Lauren to figure out. And even though he denied me the opportunity to be Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (swoon), I think I’m starting to pick up what he was putting down.
The past few weeks I’ve been radiated by some of the coolest people to ever grace God’s green earth. I have a rotating team of therapists that deliver my radiation treatments and I would trust these people with my life. Mostly because I actually do trust them with my life since they’re shooting lasers into my head.
I can’t seem to form a coherent, organized account of how wonderful my experience has been so far with the Proton Center. So I’m going to share what my friend Maggie and I call “triscuits,” which are basically things that happen that make your day a little better than it was when you woke up. (They can be big, like the time Maggie met Sean Penn in South Africa, or small like eating a chocolate chip muffin.)
Every weekday I drive down the beautiful IN 37 to get to the IU Health Proton Therapy Center in Bloomington, Indiana (I sometimes wear Marquette t-shirts around town down there but I’m not salty, Tom Crean). One of my cool therapists comes and gets me from the waiting room and we chat as we walk down the hall. A lot of times I wish the hallway was longer because I always run into other staff and they’re all so fantastic. There are a few different beam rooms and my appointment times vary so my therapists change from day to day. I know most of them by name though so no matter which room I’m in or what time I’m there, it’s a win-win. I walk into the radiation room and Matt will give me a solid high-five or Amanda will greet me with an enthusiastic “hello!” or Frankie will flash a mega-watt smile and I have to turn around to make sure it’s me they’re talking to and not the Duchess of Cambridge. Singing David will naturally be singing and humming or David #1 will make me laugh and ask me about work (there are two David’s but no David #2 because they’re both #1, I just need a way to differentiate between them). I climb onto a table equipped with a mold of the upper half of my body and lie on it so that I’m in the exact same position every day. Then they strap me to a table and put on my mask that makes me look like an alien cyborg so that I stay completely still during the treatment. They also play groovy music (my boys John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Mat Kearney) and I have to practice the highest degree of self-restraint to fight the urge to dance as they radiate my tumor from different angles in this cool room. Long story short I get to feel like I’m in a sci-fi movie every day, minus the “fi” part.
I also get to learn a little bit about the neat sorcery they’re performing with these protons. Every time I am radiated, when the actual beam hits me, I smell something weird. I always assumed it was the equipment or my burning flesh (kidding the proton beam doesn’t burn my skin) but I just couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it smelled like. The other morning I was running on the Monon Trail and could’ve sworn I smelled something exactly like the radiation, so I guess I could describe it as humid leaves and dead animal. That same day I asked my therapists about the smell and told them about the phantom radiation smell on the Monon. They nodded and said it was normal, that the beam hits a nerve in my head on its way to the tumor and makes me smell it. They said I’m not actually smelling anything, it’s just a sensation my brain makes up. I stared at them, dumbfounded, and accused them of lying to my face. Nope, they’d never lie to me.
THE SMELL IS ALL IN MY HEAD.
They said some people see blue flashes, some people smell bleach. But me? I smell dead animal. (OF ALL THINGS. WHY BRAIN WHY.)
DISCLAIMER: I should also add that I don’t actually know what dead animals smell like so that PETA doesn’t come after me. It’s just that I don’t really have anything else to compare the smell to and what else would smell weird on the Monon? (Don’t answer that.) Upon my friend Maggie’s brilliant idea, I’ve been trying to train my brain to think that it’s smelling cinnamon rolls. It hasn’t worked yet but the morale is still through the roof.
In addition to being my nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, these people are also ridiculously fun to joke around with. In fact twice so far I’ve accidentally moved when I’m not supposed to because they made me laugh, which is the best thing to get in trouble for in life. Within the first few days I asked them when the superpowers would kick in and instead of writing me off as an annoying fartknocker they played along and said to give it a few weeks. (Still waiting on laser vision or mind reading or super strength or heck even the ability to remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday.)
Another time, I jokingly apologized to Singing David for something that probably wasn’t my fault. Somehow within 30 seconds the situation escalated and I was to blame for world hunger as well as lack of world peace. According to Singing David, I’m pretty sure the world’s problems still rest on my shoulders.
One time they were explaining some science stuff to me and I said, “You guys could be shooting me with God-knows-what and I’d never know.” Then Frankie said something along the lines of, “We’re actually radiating you with positivity. You know, since protons are positive…” I stared at him for a hot minute, profoundness suffocating the room, and told him he needed to get that tattooed somewhere.
Some of my therapists also revealed that Matt likes to karaoke to 90s hip hop songs, so naturally that’s my number one priority before I leave the Proton Center. I asked Matt about it today and said he does requests. I’m so amped.
I never would have thought that one day I’d need a treatment involving radioactive particles, but here I am. I’ve always been healthy and able to care for myself, so as I started treatment when they told me there was a chance I’d be exhausted or even nauseous, I arrogantly believed that I’d bop around unaffected. The thing about doctors is that they went to school for a lot of years and they are smart human beings and they usually know what they’re talking about. After a few treatments I started to feel the exhaustion kick in. I have to keep reminding myself that radiation is big league stuff and it’s okay to admit that I’m not 100% and to let the nurses and therapists help me. I was worried about starting school late and cutting back on hours at work and then Perspective came over for a cup of tea and reminded me that this body is the only one I’ve got so I better take care of it.
Now if a clairvoyant (e.g. Raven Simone) would have told me that radiation would be this cool, I probably would’ve asked her to define “cool” and hit her upside the head with a dictionary. At a glance these past few weeks have been the antithesis of my summer last year, but what made backpacking in Europe so special and what makes my trips to the Proton Center so special were/are the people. The Eiffel Tower and hazelnut gelato and the Swiss Alps are all amazing but imagine if I hadn’t encountered any people along the way. Amsterdam wouldn’t have been as cool without the chill Scottish lads we met on a boat bed and breakfast; La Spezia would’ve been less memorable without the crusty Navy spear fishermen; and, a prime example, the Vatican wouldn’t have been so awesome and dreamy without seeing the Pope (see where I’m going with this?).
Lauren’s Dream starring Pope Francis happened before my radiation even started. Before I even made the decision between traditional radiation and the specialized proton beam radiation. Remember my awesome optometrist I talked about a few short weeks ago? He was the one that mentioned proton beam radiation in passing long before I knew I would have to undergo treatment. So I guess there never really was a decision. All signs pointed to proton beam, and now I know why. In addition to sparing my healthy brain tissue behind my optic nerve and trying to preserve my vision, I came to the Proton Center for the people. Dr. McDonald, Dr. B, Amanda, Singing David, David #1, Matt, Frankie, Brad, Debbie, Victor, the rest of the therapists, all the nurses and receptionists made a curveball that life threw at me a lot less intimidating and way more enjoyable than I ever thought possible.
I found out last Friday that the IU Health Proton Center is closing in January 2015. I am devastated, as are the other patients who have been healed both physically and spiritually by these amazing people. I cannot fully express my gratitude to the Proton Center and everyone who makes it such a special place. Today Debbie told me that I was making history by being one of their last patients, and I told her it wasn’t the kind of history I wanted to make. I wish it could stay open forever and I pray that the entire staff at the Center find places where they can continue to use their gifts and radiate positivity.
I hope that if Pope Francis ever shows up in your dream, your subconscious memory holds onto whatever he tries to tell you. Because I now know, and will continue to find out, why he said that I came here for the people.