When I was a tiny kid, an infusion was a benign beverage, chamomile or peach tea, that my great aunt Tatie—the one who slept with her hat on–drank in the early afternoon as she nibbled on sugar cookies and told tales of colonial Africa.
Now an infusion is a cocktail of unpronounceable drugs administered via an IV to bolster my immune system against cancer. Times have changed.
Today was my third immunotherapy session; I’m halfway through the process. I’m in the medical version of a Barcalounger. In the station next to mine, an elderly man moans rhythmically while across the aisle, a woman works her cross-word puzzle.
When the drug—Pembrolizumab—hits my system, I get a rush of heat, like walking into a sauna. I close my eyes and the warmth ebbs. The side-effects are entirely endurable—fatigue, some nausea, itching. The nurse, a small, thin Asian woman, chirps as she works, a model of efficiency. I am amazed by the amount of stuff she discards: five pairs of latex gloves, some 20 feet of IV tubing, two sets of needles, a half-empty bag of saline, and various bits and pieces whose uses are mystery.
The moaning man is now talking on the phone in Arabic. His phone is on speaker and faraway voices take turns asking questions. There are old voices and young ones and a crying baby is brought to the phone so we can all hear it wail. The man says inshallah a number of times. After a while, he hangs up and begins moaning again and I inshallah that his whimpering stop. God hears me and it does.
An hour later, I am talking with the oncologist who tells me most of my chemistry is normal, save my calcium, which is borderline. Next week, I am scheduled for a cystoscopy, which will thread a small camera up my urethra and into my bladder to see if the cancer there is receding or progressing. Immunotherapy offers a 30 to 40 percent chance of improvement in my condition. I can’t do the standard chemo anymore because my body has become intolerant to the chemicals used.
I walk back through the infusion center. The old man’s eyes are closed and he is moaning again. I say, “Salamo Alaykum,” one of two expressions I know in Arabic. His eyes open, he smiles and nod.
I feel better about having inshallah-ed him earlier.