Greenpark Radiology was my first full-time job after x-ray school. St. Elmo’s Fire was on VHS video by then, 1986, the theme song often playing on the radio as I drove to Houston’s Medical Center in the mornings, I can see a new horizon/Underneath the blazin’ sky / I’ll be where the eagles / Flyin’ higher and higher...
The movie and song underscored the selfish passions and short-sightedness of most 22 year-olds. The film characters were my age, their whole lives ahead of them, luminous particles, blue flames. I never thought beyond their invincibility.
I learned I was pregnant with my first child during the first week on the job. My manager, Randy, wasn’t thrilled. I assured him I was just as surprised as he was and that the pregnancy wouldn’t affect my job performance. He gave me a "we’ll see" look as we discussed the details of radiation exposure during pregnancy and how much maternity leave I could take.
I kept my promise and worked just as hard as anyone else. I wore heavy lead aprons and lifted 14x17 cassettes which weighed at least a pound each; there were six to ten of these necessary for every barium enema we performed, plus a few 10x12's and 11x14's, all juggled in a rush before the patient lost barium all over the room. It wasn’t easy work.
When not in fluoroscopy I worked in mammography. The job wasn’t physically taxing but required more sensitivity; patients often came in scared, either of the procedure itself or the possibility of cancer. When I was eight weeks pregnant a patient came in with a lump in her breast. Her situation was complicated by the fact that she was also eight weeks pregnant. We worked carefully around her pregnancy, the delicate first trimester, a critical stage of development and sensitivity to radiation.
The patient’s name was Pam. She was 29 years old, tall with thick dark hair past her shoulders. As I wrapped the lead apron around her pelvis we talked about our pregnancies. She’d struggled for ten years to conceive. Her baby was a miracle.
Both of Pam’s breasts felt abnormally firm but I figured this was due to pregnancy changes. Then her films emerged from the processor showing tiny flecks, like sand, scattered throughout both breasts.
I took the images to the radiologist, Dr. Gregg, "Is this what I think it is?"
"Inflammatory breast cancer? Yes, I’m sorry to say," then he called Pam’s obstetrician to discuss the terrible diagnosis.
There are many types of breast cancer and Pam had the most aggressive type. She was young and full of pregnancy hormones which would ignite the cancer as a lit match to straw. Her prognosis was grim.
Pam’s doctors recommended she have both breast removed and undergo chemotherapy. They would have to take the baby. I was devastated for her. She didn’t deserve this. No one did.
Randy was missing a lot of work around this time. He was openly homosexual and cases of AIDS were increasing. We feared the worst but were prepared when he returned to work and announced that he was indeed infected with the disease but taking AZT. It was supposed to be the new miracle drug.
Randy had hidden his sexual orientation at his previous job, even going so far as to have a picture of a dead woman on his desk claiming it was his fiancée. He "came out" just before taking the management job at Greenpark . But he never came clean with the lies he told about his childhood, claiming to have grown up with a nanny in a mansion and to have attended prestigious boarding schools, etc. He told us his well-to-do parents were dead.
The AZT took its toll. It made Randy too sick to work, leaving him wilted in the file room on a fold-up chair. "I can’t do this," he’d say.
During his last day before taking a leave of absence he said while slumped against a countertop in the employee lounge, "When you wake up every morning, you better live for yourself . Put yourself first ."
His words made me uncomfortable but I agreed to follow his advice. He later removed a few personal items from his desk, photos of exotic vacations, happier times, and placed them carefully in a cardboard box. Dr. Gregg and another technologist helped him carry his things to the elevator. Randy and I waved to one another as the doors were closing. I never saw him again.
A decorator was hired to redo a small room we weren’t using at Greenpark. She hung stunning wallpaper, replaced the carpet with a warmer, softer plush. She put two wingback chairs in far corners of the room, a round table and small lamp between them. It was now the nicest room in the suite and labeled "the news room", the place where patients received their mammogram results.
I watched as the final finishing touch was added, a small dried flower arrangement placed on the small table. I was mentally preparing myself to make the call for my own HIV results; I’d asked to be tested due to the pregnancy and paranoia of the times. I made the call from a payphone outside our office, terrified after watching Randy’s nightmare. I thought of him, now living at home in Dallas with parents who weren’t dead after all. They weren’t well-to-do. They’d never lived in a mansion, hired nannies or placed their son in any sort of boarding school. Randy’s whole life had been a lie.
"Hello ma’am?" the voice on the phone asked.
"Yes?" I swallowed hard and watched people enter and exit the elevator nearby.
"Your results were negative."
Life remained busy at Greenpark and my pregnancy was coming to an end. I continued to work hard, thankful to be busy which took my mind off the challenging last weeks with ankles that looked like tree trunks wearing shoes. When it was possible I sat in the lounge and put my feet up. It was during one of these breaks that the front desk called to say I had a visitor waiting in the front lobby.
I waddled up front and opened the lobby door. I recognized only my visitor’s face. I asked her to come with me to the news room where Pam and I sat together in the soft lamplight. She was as pregnant as I was.
"I decided to have the bilateral mastectomy but no chemotherapy. I’m due in two weeks," she said, smiling and rubbing her large round belly.
I had no words at first, then smiled and congratulated her, struggled to hide what we both knew, that her decision was bittersweet.
Pam no doubt lost her battle with cancer. Her daughter would be the same age as my own. I’d love to tell her how honorable her mother’s courage was, her example in the face of a terrifying and unfair illness. She could have focused on the storm in her life but instead kept her eyes on the faint glow most visible in low-light, the luminous blue-violet flames.
Teresa Cortez is a freelance writer who lives in Sugar Land, Texas. She writes nonfiction because real life is strange enough. You can view more of her work HERE.