By Lily Mulholland
Ellen felt ridiculous worrying about her crowning glory. She had only just started to like her hair, which was silver with blonde streaks and had somehow lost its irrational kinks as she’d mellowed into her early 60s. Now she was fretting about the possibility of it falling out. Not strand by strand as it had after her three pregnancies, but in large, undignified, unstoppable chunks.
It had all started with a visit to the blood bank. Being a good nurse, she knew how important it was to give blood and had only missed one or two appointments over the past thirty years. She’d left home in plenty of time to make the drive across town, circled the block only four times looking for a spot, parked the car and walked back up the street to the donation centre. Ellen sat in line, moving up the plastic chair snake as it came closer to her turn. Having already filled out the paperwork, she had a magazine ready to go as soon as she could be seated comfortably in the blood donation chair.
Before she could get comfortable her haemoglobin levels had to be checked by a nurse in one of the interview booths. ‘Just a little prick’, Ellen said to herself out of habit – it had been one of her well-worn nursing jokes – as the lancet was pushed into her finger and a solitary drop of blood squeezed out onto the test strip. The nurse inserted the strip into the scanner and pushed the button. After a few seconds she pursed her lips and said with a slight frown, ‘Nope, you won’t be giving blood today Ellen – your Hb levels are too low.’
‘Oh blast,’ said Ellen, ‘I wonder what’s going on. My iron levels have been up and down over the years but my haemoglobin is usually fine.’
‘Best get yourself checked out by your GP, love. You want to nip any problems in the bud, eh?’
Ellen had taken herself into town to do a spot of shopping as consolation. After she’d worn herself out sufficiently she headed back home. She made an appointment with her doctor for two days’ time.
‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ Ellen said to the doctor as she sat down in his office. ‘But I guess I’m getting to the age where bits start to fall off, so I thought I’d better come and see you anyway.’
Dr Martens raised an eyebrow at Ellen. He’d been Ellen’s doctor for at least twenty years and knew she didn’t make frivolous appointments.
‘Good idea. I don’t like the sound of your haemoglobin levels, so I’m sending you off for some blood tests confirm the reading. Also, we might as well check your iron levels while you’re there. Now, depending on how the results look, I think we’ll be sending you off for a gastroscopy and endoscopy just to check things out.’
Ellen grimaced. She knew this meant a general anaesthetic and a camera up/down each end. ‘Hopefully not simultaneously,’ she thought.
The tests had come back. While Ellen’s Hb reading was slightly low, her iron levels were well below normal. She’d made a booking for the procedures at a local clinic, pleased that she didn’t have to go into hospital. She didn’t like hospitals much – she knew she’d spend the whole time scrutinising the old equipment, harried staff and peeling paint on the walls knowing that nothing much had changed in the ten years since she’d given up nursing.
When she’d awoken and recovered – proud of her body’s ability to bounce back from surgery so quickly – the specialist had come to see her and tell her the news.
‘We found a lump I’m afraid. In your upper right quadrant, just under you ribcage.’
Ellen heard the words ‘lump’ and ‘afraid’.
‘About the size of twenty cent piece. We can’t tell if it’s benign or malignant, so we’ve taken a sample and have sent it off to pathology for testing.’
‘Oh,’ mouthed Ellen.
‘You’ll need to have a CAT scan tomorrow just to see if there are any other problems, and then you’ll need to see a surgeon.’
‘Oh,’ said Ellen again. She somehow remembered to speak. ‘Thanks.’ She had nursed oncology patients.
Her husband arrived shortly after the specialist had moved onto the next patient. Russell listened with a worried face as Ellen relayed the conversation with as little emotion as she could. Ellen placed her hand on his and told him not to worry.
‘There’s no point in worrying until we have the test results. We’ll listen to what the oncologist tells us and, whatever happens, we’ll work through it.’
Ellen was glad she was made of tough stuff. Every time her mind started reeling, she told herself to get a grip. ‘I will not worry until there’s something to worry about.’
After Russell had taken her home, Ellen took a gin and tonic into the sunroom along with the phone. She rang each of her children and told them the news. She felt like she was describing events happening to someone else, but knew she couldn’t stay in denial forever. Come Monday, she’d know either way: benign or malignant. Single or spread. She took another sip and enjoyed the warmth of the sun as it bathed her body in light.