At the time of my bone marrow transplant for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, without retrospect’s safety net, morning came. I remember the scent of bagels from a biscuit shop across the street from the hospital. Sprinklers doused flower beds of marigolds, daffodils, daisies. I walked with my mother and sister to Swedish Hospital on Pill Hill in Seattle, entered, heard the elevator doors closing, sealing me off from the world of people worried about getting to work, kids scrambling for buses, sunlight amid trees. I did feel lucky that the official Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center inpatient facility didn’t have room for me. Devoted only to transplant patients, it seemed a dark forbidding place. Death, a gentleman in top hat and overcoat, held the door for families who walked in and didn’t leave. Instead, I would be committed to Eleven South West, a wing of the huge Swedish Hospital which the Hutch used for overflowing cancer cases. I much preferred being in a place called “Swedish” which conjured images of vigorous blond women, meatballs, and massages. Also, I liked it because it seemed more normal—white and sterile, instead of sinister and shadowy—and teeming with diversity. I may have been preparing for a torturous exit, but in the same facility, there were babies being born, tonsillectomies, broken arms, concussions, heart attacks. I didn’t want to be surrounded only by people like me. In Swedish, there were different dramas taking place, more like living than death.
Despite having visions of nineteenth-century asylums, I entered my laminar airflow room on 11 SW in April 1986 with relief and terror. It certainly was not the torture pit of my nightmares. But it was horrifying in its anonymity. Welcome to the institution, baby! There was one hospital bed in front of a wall chock full of mysterious equipment—suction tubes, pumps, monitors, gauges, plugs. There were two chairs covered in blue vinyl, a television, stationary bicycle, clothes cupboard, and tray on wheels. From the hospital corridor, you entered a small room, a vestibule where you anointed yourself before seeing me. Okay, you actually scrubbed your hands with antiseptic soap and put on a surgical mask to protect me from germs. During my pre-transplant chemotherapy, you also had to don shoe covers, gown, and paper cap. It was actually fun after a while to watch the doctors go through all this just to see me, made me feel like royalty instead of a usual denizen of purgatory. Once dressed and cleansed, you could pass through a second very solid door, making sure the door to the general corridor was closed first, letting no germs in. The bathroom and wall with television were to your left, the bed to your right. Opposite the door, a huge window with triple-paned glass looked down on a magnificent view of St. James Cathedral. In the distance, there was Puget Sound. If this had been a hotel, I would have been very impressed. The triple-paned glass on the window was to ensure no breeze permeated my atmosphere; I was to live on rarified air pumped in through special vents. At the time, I also thought the extra panes discouraged despairing patients from jumping—momentary flight, then nothingness.