Peter Gordon leads workshops on business writing and communications skills at organizations across the US and Canada. He’s also a public speaker and mentor for the cancer community. Peter and his wife Mary Ann live in Portland, Maine. There they enjoy skiing, bicycling, and searching for the perfect lobster roll.
Six Years and Counting
Love, Leukemia, and the Long Road Onward
by Peter Gordon
Six Years and Counting
Love, Leukemia, and the Long Road Onward
by Peter Gordon
Published Sep 13, 2017
Genre: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Medical (incl. Patients)
A bone marrow transplant and beyond: an American healthcare odyssey
Having rebuilt his life after a painful divorce, Peter was on top of the world. Recently remarried, a thriving career, living in a beautiful mountain resort - life was looking up again. Suddenly an aggressive case of leukemia seized his body and turned his world upside down. His only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant, and at his age the outlook wasn’t good… In this gripping chronicle, Peter Gordon takes you through the initial shock and upheaval, the agonizing wait for a matching donor, the brutal transplant process itself, and the surprisingly difficult road afterward. And that’s just part of the story. His wife suffers a debilitating injury, tossing the couple into intertwined roles of patient and caregiver. For several years, they struggle together through one challenge after another… Peter’s story provides a riveting, “in the moment” view of a regular guy and his wife grappling with cancer and its many offshoots. He shares razor-sharp observations, moments of deep introspection, and the wide emotional swings of their journey: from stressful and gut-wrenching, to humorous, heartwarming, and poignant. Six Years and Counting is a real-world healthcare saga for our times, offering insightful lessons for cancer patients, caregivers, and medical professionals. It’s also a touching story about relationships, family, and self-discovery – and ultimately an inspiring tale of resilience and love.
Six Years and Counting: Love, Leukemia, and the Long Road Onward
By Peter Gordon
This is the opening chapter:
Part 1 – INKLINGS
I still remember the tingle of the spring snow splattering against my face. It was spraying from RJ’s skis, and I was right on his tail. It was mid-April. A bunch of us ski instructors were enjoying a season-ending play day at our neighboring ski area Wildcat. No lessons today – just a gaggle of middle-aged men whooping and frolicking down the mountain like teenage boys. I carved a big arcing turn and shot ahead of the group. Suddenly a voice cried out from above: “Hold up! Here’s the turnoff!” A local Wildcat instructor was showing us the way to a secret run down a snow-filled stream bed. I hit the brakes as hard as I could, but by the time I stopped, I was about a hundred feet below the others. “Hey Peter, you coming? We’ll wait for ya.” Normally a hundred foot sidestep up a gentle ski slope would be nothing for me, especially to join my buddies for an off-the-beaten-track run through the woods - the type of terrain I usually love. But for some reason, I didn’t feel up to the climb. “No, you guys go ahead. I’ll meet you at the bottom.”
* * *
I picked up the phone. “Good morning, Peter Gordon.”
“Hi Peter. This is Crystal from Mountain Medical.”
“Oh, hi Crystal. How you doing?"
“Fine. I just wanted to follow up from your exam yesterday. Your blood test results just came back from the lab, and some of the numbers seem a little off. It’s probably nothing – maybe the machine wasn’t calibrated properly. But just to be sure, would you mind coming back in for another blood test?"
“Sure, no problem. Can I swing by tomorrow morning sometime?”
“How about 9:00 am?”
“That’s perfect. See you then.”
* * *
Mary Ann was at her Book Club meeting with several neighbors from the resort where we lived. As part of the usual chit-chat among the ladies, she mentioned that she was a bit worried about my two recent blood tests, especially now that they were sending me to a hematologist for further testing. Every woman in the group offered some sort of reassuring phrase: “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing... The labs make mistakes all the time… Peter’s such a strong healthy guy… I’m sure he’ll be fine,” etc. Every woman, that is, except our neighbor Peg - a retired nurse, a real no-nonsense type. Peg didn’t say a word, but for a split second she caught Mary Ann’s eye and gave her a fleeting glance – a glance of concern. In that instant (as I only found out months later), Mary Ann first knew...
* * *
It was a beautiful spring morning as I sauntered into the Littleton Hospital. My mind was on my hike that afternoon, wondering how the footing would be now that the snow was melting. A cheerful elderly volunteer greeted me at the information desk – she was wearing a bright red vest with buttons all over it, like a Walmart greeter. I told her I was there to follow up on some blood tests, and was looking for a Dr. Diener. “Oh yes, he’s in the oncology clinic, down the hall, third door on the right.” Oncology? I thought he was a hematologist. Hmmm…
As I entered the clinic, the receptionist welcomed me warmly - unusually so for a medical office. What a friendly place, I thought, as I settled into my seat in the waiting area. I noticed they had a little garden outside the waiting room window, its plants just starting to come to life after the long New Hampshire winter. What a nice touch. I glanced around at the brightly colored posters on the wall and brochures in the display rack. Posters with beautiful photos of flowers and waterfalls and rays of sunshine, and little sayings about positive attitudes and compassion and love; brochures about support groups and caregiver counseling and living wills and - oh my god - hospice care! A shiver swept through me, and I felt my world shift.
* * *
I’m lying on my stomach on the examining table, my pants pulled down a bit to expose my hip. Dr. Diener apologizes in advance for what some patients find to be a very uncomfortable procedure. He calmly explains exactly how he’s going to extract the bone marrow sample from my hip bone, step by step. I find this helpful. The nurse rubs a freezing antiseptic swab across the entry spot. The cold suddenly dissolves into searing heat as injections of painkiller burn under my skin. Doc soon asks if the spot’s numb. I catch a glimpse of a sleek rod with a sharp little thing on the end and a handle on top. The nurse takes hold of my hand. Diener pushes the tool into my backside. Hardly any pain as it pierces the skin, then I feel an odd little bump as it hits bone. He cautions me this may be uncomfortable. I feel the tool twisting and grinding into my hip, the pressure pushing me down into the cushion on the table. Not too painful as long as I stay relaxed and breathe. More bothersome are the vibrations and squeaks as he grinds away. Diener asks if I’m OK. Doing fine, I say. Here comes the tough part, he says, again almost apologetically. Suddenly I think I feel the tool break through the bone into the soft marrow chamber inside. A different kind of feeling like nothing I’ve ever experienced - a strange tingling pulsating burn deep inside. Again, breathing helps. Diener asks again how I’m doing. I say OK. He says he’s almost done, then suddenly he’s out. As the nurse whisks away the tools and dressings, out of the corner of my eye I notice what looks like a little vial – I assume it contains my bone marrow sample. They patch me up with a small dressing. I hitch up my pants and hop up off the table. They say I handled it unusually well.
This is not your run-of-the-mill blood test. The bone marrow Dr. Diener has extracted from my hip will be sent to a special lab for biopsy – a much deeper, more complex analysis than the regular blood tests I’ve had so far. The analysis will take a week. I schedule a follow-up appointment with Diener to review the results, then I head home...
I remember walking back to my car that day, weaving through the puddles from the melting snow piles in the hospital parking lot, wondering about that little vial and what its contents would reveal. I knew a lot was at stake. I’m not sure if Mary Ann or I or anyone had as yet even given voice to the “C” word, but it was certainly lurking in our minds, deep below the surface, more menacing in the unspoken recesses of our fears than out in the open.
Yes, I knew the contents of that vial would determine a lot. But now, as I reflect back on it years later, I realize I didn’t have a clue about all it really contained. Bone marrow is like a super-fertile breeding ground for new blood cells – in many ways, even a source of life itself. Well, the marrow sample in that little vial would become the source of an unimagined journey, taking me to places I never dreamed of. It would chart a course not only for my next few years, but for the rest of my life. It would change my world, and lead me into the depths of my own soul. And it would be the wellspring of a deeper love than I had ever imagined possible...
But I‘m not thinking about any of that as I leave the hospital that morning in the spring of 2008. All I know is that little vial contains the answer to why my blood counts have gone haywire lately. It’ll turn uncertainty into concrete knowledge, and waiting into tangible action steps, whatever they may be. And that’s good enough for me.
I tuck away my thoughts about the biopsy results into a little compartment in the back of my mind. My appointment with Dr. Diener is a week away, so I turn off that switch and refocus on the moment. I’m already packed and prepared for my business trip to New York the next morning, so I’m going to reward myself with an afternoon hike. It’ll be great to get out into the warm spring air, and start transitioning those leg muscles from skiing to hiking season. I hop across the last of the puddles, step into my car, and head home.
Despite a sore backside, lots of mud and slush on the trail, and a bit more huffing and puffing than usual, my hike that afternoon turns out to be wonderful.