In praise of NHH (and our health care)

In one of those chilling, life−changing moments she felt a lump in her left breast. A myriad of scenarios raced through her mind, none of them good. Early on a cold mid−February day this year, she went to her family doctor's office. Always booked up well in advance, he had told her spots were held open for emergencies. This is the story of a lady I know and, as it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month in Ontario, she shared her experience with me.

11: 45 a.m. The most important appointment in her life so far. Ushered into the doctor's office, right on schedule.

12:15 p.m. She was on her way to Northumberland Hills Hospital (NHH) with a referral for a mammogram and any necessary biopsies, her doctor's last words lingering: "If you haven't heard from the hospital in a week, give me a call."

12:40 p.m. An incredible break. The first mammogram images were being made, then an ultrasound, then another mammogram.

1:30 p.m. a series of biopsies had been taken to be sent away to a laboratory −− results back in about week.

It was a long, long seven days −− the news at the end, bad. As she had dreaded, breast cancer. More tests at NHH. Surgery would be required.

Her life became a blur. Meet with the surgeon. To huge relief, a lumpectomy procedure, not the dreaded mastectomy, plus sentinel lymph node removed. Pre−op physical exams. Blood tests. Bone scans. A date set for day−surgery at NHH.

March 10 −During the surgery a decision was made to remove two more lymph nodes. Throughout it all, from the first meeting with her GP, the care, dedication and consideration she was given was remarkable. It was just the beginning.

April 18 −A drive to the Oshawa Cancer Centre to meet two oncologists, one specializing in radiation therapy, the other chemotherapy. It was her choice, a lifestyle decision given her age (81−years old in seven weeks) to proceed just with radiation.

It would become a familiar part of her life. From the moment she walked in, it was as though the Centre was there just for her.

With on−going, quiet efficiency, understanding and caring, a treatment plan was arrived at. It was her choice, a lifestyle decision given her age, to proceed with just radiation and no chemotherapy. Throughout May, she would travel to Oshawa five days a week for radiation treatments. With a computerized check−in system the staff were immediately aware of her presence in the waiting area −a quiet place, together with other cancer patients, eyes discreetly scanning faces −− a nod of recognition here, a blank stare there, a smile of camaraderie, sharing, waiting.

A month of stress, 140 kilometers a day along Hwy. 401, the changing colours of spring marking her progress as fatigue from the treatments set in. Crocuses in Oshawa were replaced by daffodils, cherry blossoms by full leaf. Tired and weakened, summer became a time of recuperation, follow−up appointments, uncertainty, life on hold, giving the cliché, one 'day−at−a−time', true meaning.

In Ontario, 9000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year −− 1,980 will die from the disease. To date, close to 5,000 screening mammograms have been done at NHH. Research shows that regular screening of women in the 50− 69 age range can reduce death by 30% −− for women in the 50−74 range, by 24%. Locally, all it takes to get a screening appointment is to call 905−377−7795 −− 10 potentially lifesaving numbers. Let your fingers do the walking.

Much has been written and spoken about the faults of our healthcare system. Perhaps, being as fortunate as we are in Ontario, we tend to take too much for granted. One only has to look to our neighbours to the south and the inequities that exist in the American system, to appreciate what we have here. Right in Cobourg. The service and care this lady received at NHH was remarkable −− equally so in Oshawa. With the leaves of autumn falling, how is she doing, almost eight months after her surgery? It's a slow recovery. There will be continuous check−ups, scheduled mammograms, the future uncertain. But she's here, a survivor. It's easy to criticize (complain?) about the level of heath care we enjoy, the frustrating wait times. But when it really counts, it's there for us, together with remarkable, compassionate care − as it was for her at NHH and in Oshawa. And that's what counts.

This article appeared in the October 27, 2011 edition of Northumberland Today and is reposted with the permission of the author Grahame Woods.  Mr. Woods lives in Cobourg and can be reached at ggwoods@sympatico.ca