Monday, May 28, 2012

Whipple Effects & Perspectives

I have been working through two separate after-effects of my Whipple procedure in the past few weeks. The Whipple is the surgery that removed my tumor and so, saved my life.

I have always been a little anemic, ever since childhood. Anecdotally, I've been feeling it a little more since my Whipple. I used to give blood and platelets very regularly and only failed for my hemoglobin levels very occasionally. Since being Whippled, I only pass 10-20% of the time. I've also struggled with my running – speed and endurance – since being sick. I reluctantly chalked it up to just getting old. But after waking up exhausted again a full 10 days after doing my first half-marathon in over two years, I knew that something was up. Blood work confirmed my low iron. Scoping my insides since has confirmed that I am not losing blood internally – which is good. It does imply that my iron absorption is extra poor. So I've started weekly iron IV infusions to prop up my counts. Problem experienced, diagnosed and getting remedied – thank God.

I also had a surprise incidence of pancreatitis recently. I went from exceptional to ER in a few hours one Saturday afternoon. Turns out I have a little stone in my pancreatic duct that was causing a back-up in there. An overnight at RWJUH, a CAT scan, 18 hours of IV fluids and time off for my digestive system – and I was fine again. The stone formed because my duct is likely restricted from my tumor having pressing on it. My fine doctors can't get at it because my altered piping increases the risk of a perforation as they snake their way through. Zapping it isn't an option because the pancreas is a soft tissue organ and would cause too much collateral damage. So, I wait for it to pass in its own time. In the meantime, I am forced to avoid the fried and fatty treats (and alcohol) that beckon all around. It was pizza and red wine that irritated my pancreas enough to land me in the ER in the first place. My margin of error is suddenly very slim. Again… problem experienced, diagnosed and getting managed – thank God. Anything short of hearing, "I am sorry Mr. Juricic, there's nothing we can do for you." – I am okay with.

Independent of these health issues (other than having a little bit of horizontal hospital gown time to reconsider life), I have been thinking a lot about perspective lately. It seems to me that perspective is mostly a matter of what we are comparing things to. Satisfaction in life may have more to do with our response to (the nearly-always) when life falls short of some ideal. Because even then, it is nearly-always better than it could have been. [Not to imply that we should strive merely for something better than the worst-case scenario in life.]

A pancreatic stone is far better than any kind of tumor.
My Nona Ana's long and rich 92 years of life and love is far better than most of us will experience.
Running slowly still beats not running at all.

I've noticed some conflicting tendencies amongst us that allow for convenient, and sometimes counter-productive, perspectives. For instance, when we consider our actions – especially in response to the behavior of those around us– our inclination is to compare ourselves to others. "Well…she started it." "He was mean/hit/whatever me." "People cut in all the time." Because this other behaved a certain way (that is wrong in our eyes), we then justify our bad behavior in return. And thus, the situation between the Hatfields and McCoys is perpetuated.

The question is – why do we compare ourselves to the least common denominator in the behavior of others? Why do we allow ourselves to be hurtful back when that person hurts us? We have numerous vey compelling real-life examples of better responses such as Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa and, or course the ultimate, Jesus. Why not strive for those bests instead of excusing ourselves to be less than that?

Interestingly, when it comes to how others "should" respond to us, we apply a different
measuring stick. Suddenly we no longer use "others" (or that very person) as a reference point. For the actions that others choose to take towards us, we compare those against what we (claim that we) would have done. Knowing what we need in a given situation, we very readily identify how the other fell short. "I would have…", we think to ourselves. "I would never…", we conclude – conveniently forgetting the times when we are selfish, arrogant or hurtful.

How convenient that we judge ourselves against the worst in others, while others get measured against the best of ourselves. That expedience allows us the maximum latitude, while leaving others minimum room for error. That does not seem like a very loving approach to community with others.

Christianity challenges these errant comparisons. It is not about being Christ-like, exactly. Ours is not so much to try to be Jesus – but, at best, to bring a little bit of Jesus into this world. I can only strive to be the very best Franco that I can be in every situation. That is, obviously, an incredibly tall order. And the best I can do is always better than what I am managing right now. Yet, that is precisely the challenge of Jesus.

A necessary aspect of that perspective is the knowledge that we will all always fall short. I will for sure – and that's okay. Compared to a lesser me, I can only keep trying to choose my best response. You will disappoint me too – and that's okay. I have to believe that you are doing the best that you can manage too. That is were compassion and forgiveness come in - for ourselves and towards others.

A good perspective can start with the reference point that we are all broken and trying our best. There's lots of rewarding places to go in life from there.

P.S. – Thank you all for the amazing love and prayer support that I have felt throughout this recent health issue and always. I am incredibly blessed!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Letting Go of Life

I have seen, in the last few years, demonstrated instances of individuals seeming to will them selves back to good health (if not back to life). I have also seen sad situations where cancer and other diseases have resisted the strongest will, taking a loved one before they were ready to give back any of their precious time here. I increasingly believe in the possibility that life or death is more than just a chance outcome that happens to us. We may not quite definitively choose but we may have a say. Certainly our influence on the outcome may not be equally balanced – choosing to stay may not "take" as easily as deciding to go. When it comes to the elderly especially, there may come a day when the other side with all of its unknowns becomes more appealing than someone's present state here. My 92-year-old grandmother, Ana, has been circling around that reflection point for a couple of years now. She'll say that she's ready to go, yet keeps fighting on. What an ideal place to be! She surprised me by deciding to have her leg amputated about a year ago and was herself surprised to conclude a few months later that it was worth it. Faced with the loss of her other foot now, she is getting ready to move on. She will be dying on her terms. Though it makes me sad, I see an incredible beauty in that too. What must it be like to have lived such a rich and fulfilling life that one would be content enough to "choose" to check out. Nona Ana fought as so many do – out of necessity, to survive. She taught me the wisdom of knowing when not to fight, and that acceptance can sometimes be the best course. How self-assured to trust in what comes next so much that it overwhelms the fear and apprehension inherent in that uncertainty. How beautiful to have that end come so gradually that it allows for heartfelt goodbyes with those you love. I wish that I might know the day when my work here was so complete that I was prepared to step into the next world in peace. I wish that how I die might reflect how I've lived. In Nona Ana's case, I hope that it can be with all of the stubborn strength, love and dignity she has shown throughout her life. Loving people are visiting her in these last days not because of what she can do for them now but based on the care that she has shown them throughout her life. For me that kindness and hospitality is symbolized by the world's best chicken soup that was waiting for me as my first meal after a long trip every time I visited. She is amazing and teaching me so much right up until this end – including this final lesson on trust. May the saints she's worshipped her whole life bring her safely home. And may there be a bowl of the most delicious soup (as she'd say, kako medezija) waiting for her when she gets there.