Monday, January 7, 2013

TING AND I, 1994: Cancer, MS, Paraplegia


Tina found the lump in her breast while showering. It was pea-size, perhaps smaller. The time was the spring of 1994, a year after we moved from Millwood to Ramsey and only months after she had started the immune-suppressive beta interferon injections in the hope of lessening the multiple sclerosis exacerbations that were rapidly diminishing her physical abilities.

The biopsy confirmed our fears. The usual choices presented themselves: remove the lump, remove the breast, treat with radiation or chemotherapy. With little hesitation, she and I decided that a mastectomy, removal of the breast, was the treatment we wanted, the one thought most likely to prevent recurrence or spread. Weeks later, this was done, and it was followed by an extended period of relatively mild chemotherapy.

The incident illustrated many of Tina’s strengths:

—She was alert to her health and did not deny what she found.

—She sought professional help immediately

—She identified and weighed the options, in discussions with me.

—Having chosen, she moved quickly to carry out what reason required.

—She did not bemoan her fate.

—For many years after, she faithfully underwent somewhat uncomfortable mammographies.

She was, as always, a brave soldier.


The mastectomy and subsequent treatment had weakened Tina somewhat. The combination of that and her MS was decisive. She tried pitifully hard to keep walking by using a walker, but she became bedridden by the end of 1994.

We used a wheelchair and transferred Tina to and from her bed with a sliding board. We installed a ramp from the garage. We put handrails in the shower. It seemed as though each modification we made to our home or our lifestyle was rapidly outrun by the decline in her abilities.

Late that year, 1994, we hired our first home health aide, from a foreign-worker placement agency. Kasia had won some green-card lottery in the Ukraine, had some health aide experience there, and spoke absolutely no English, only Ukrainian and Polish. Using pantomime and a Polish-English dictionary, we made ourselves understood. Sweet woman, hard worker. She lived and worked with us for over a year, benefiting from and appreciating the English lessons that Tina gave her.

Around this time, when Tina was newly paraplegic, we were introduced to a couple from a church we had visited from time to time. Namie was an attractive and articulate Japanese American, wheelchair-bound with Parkinson’s, and Doug was a handsome, charming and intelligent Ph.D. chemist. We were in our fifties, and they were about ten years younger. We had them over to have lunch, and they were able to come because we had a convenient ramp into the porch where we would be entertaining them.

Parkinsonism is a progressive neurological disorder affecting primarily the motor nerves. The jerky motions characteristic of the ailment can be controlled with medication, but this often leads to lethargy. There is little loss of thinking ability, if any at all. Namie was very active during lunch, and I found myself –to my shame –wondering whether she was going to knock our nice China cup and saucer off the table. Her husband was uneasy about that, too, unfortunately. The conversation flowed readily, however, as we had lots in common. We parted on good terms, and Tina and I expected to get invited by them to get together again. This never happened. Instead, we learned a few months later that Doug had taken off, putting her in some faith-based nursing home. This did not raise churchgoing to a higher priority for us.

Recently, I checked the Internet to see where Namie was. I found her picture in a publication put out by a charitable nursing home in upstate New York. She had continued her hobby of painting (!), and some of her pictures were in the photograph. I have read that a large fraction of marriages (perhaps 85 percent) with a disabled spouse do break up, especially if it is the wife who is disabled. Shameful.

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