ZONE 5: "That's NOT Me!"

In life we will many times face a critical question, whose answer we may have to rethink often. Depending on our circumstance, the repeated question and the answer we give will determine the conditions of our journey.

When faced with what seems as the impossible, do I turn away embittered by circumstance or do I proceed motivated by faith?

The Starbucks attendant received my order for a soy based green tea latte. She told me when the order was ready, she would call my name as written in abbreviated form on the tall size cup. I was placed on a list like all others. I quickly scanned the small seating area and chose to sit at a raised bench like table, in front of a window facing University Avenue, close to all of the hospitals within the University Health Network. Next to me on my left was a young student who was immersed in her textbook quickly summarizing her readings in note form on her computer. She had placed herself in a zone that blocked out all interference around her.

On the other side of the window I was facing, the street was busy with various types of people, all in their own particular zone, focused on a journey to somewhere.

A businessman dressed in his finest grey suite, white shirt, blue tie and black shoes, holding securely his leather briefcase, with a determined look on his faced, developed a brisk stride to ensure he reached his destination successfully.

A family stopped and held a map up to the sky. Each one pointed to a place on the map which seemed to indicate their intended destination. A discussion developed and soon after agreement was reached. They moved forward based on an agreed upon path.

Two teenagers were captivated by something humorous. They would walk, stop and then break out in childlike giggles. Unperturbed by what others observed, they would continue their journey with intermittent bursts of uncontrollable laughter.

My mind reflected back just a week prior. I was standing in line at the Air Canada gate to board a flight to the USA. There were two signs. These signs segregated passengers in two distinct categories: a) Zones 1-2; b) Zones 3-5. During most of my professional career, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to fly either first or business class, the former on long haul international flights and the latter domestically. Accordingly and howbeit wrongfully, I was considered different, more privileged and deserving than others. I was offered the best the airline had to offer, including the rare enthusiastic attitude of airline staff. I was called Super Elite. On this occasion, I was neither first nor business or super, let alone elite. Someone had determined because of my infrequent flying that my class had changed. As per my boarding pass, I was labelled Zone 5, the lowest zone, the least among many. All my privileges had been revoked. But I had not changed. I was still the person my name referenced for 50+ years. Upon check in, I was told to be seated and when ready, each zone would be called for boarding. I would be allowed to enter after everyone else.

The Starbucks attendant called out “Merv”. I responded: “That’s me”! I hurriedly claimed my latte while keeping a watch on my perfectly placed seat at the window. My neighbour continued her studies oblivious to my comings and goings. Pedestrian traffic increased significantly, with the approach of pre-set office hours.

It was now time to leave the comfort and security of the tiny zone I had been in for the last thirty minutes. My coffee cup with the name Merv printed on it was empty and so I threw it away, probably with more symbolism than I realized. I stepped out on the sidewalk and walked a short distance north. I entered the halls of Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH). It was a place I had never visited before but knew of many who did. I quickly became mesmerized. The crowds were as thick as any you would see at Disney World, but PMH was not the happiest place on earth. This was a different world, a different zone where happiness could be and more often is replaced by fear and despair. It was a zone on University Avenue, in the midst of a metropolitan world class city considered to be one of the best places to live, anywhere on earth, where to the battle of cancer is added the war between bitterness and faith. It is a place where thousands visit with anxious hope.

Since 2010, I have had three operations at Toronto General Hospital (TGH) to remove an aggressive and recurring cancerous tumour complimented with multiple minor procedures to correct surgery’s negative side effects. I reached the 4th floor of PMH and entered a zone populated by many. I surrendered my health card and UHN nameplate, to identify myself. As I had just experienced at the AC counter and Starbucks, my identity, my zone, was no different than any other. I was told to be seated and my name would be announced when ready.

The nurse called out, “Mr. Hillier”!” Quietly to myself I said: "That’s me". I quickly arose and followed her to a waiting room. After a long pause, the oncologist arrived. He asked, “Do you know why you are here?” I replied “yes” and began to provide my understanding of the situation. His response, startled me. PMH is one of the top five cancer research centres in the world. Even with my diagnosis I was comforted being in such a first class place. He replied “We have zero experience with your situation”. Seeking further explanation, he continued to tell me that with my next treatment, while they were encouraged by its potentially positive attack on the cancerous cells that were still present inside my body, they were less certain as to how my body would react to the treatment, given how it has been physically assaulted three times previously. Radiation therapy has a very high success rate and the side effects while at times significant, but in most cases were short term offering a good recovery. Upon further research, there were not more than five noted cases in North America characterized like mine. I was definitely in a zone I had never been in my entire life. It was my personal Zone 5.

So the question I, like many others must answer is: “do I turn away embittered or do I proceed motivated by faith?”

There must be only one answer. As my journey begins on August 9th and ends on September 23rd, 2016, consisting of 33 daily doses of radiation to a zone on my body permanently tattooed with 3 strategically placed ink spots to ensure consistent accuracy, I will believe (“faith”) that what my doctor has described as “going where no one has gone before” (I have heard that phrase said by someone else) or what I have tagged as Zone 5, will be in the end a memory of realized hope to share with others who may have to take a similar journey and discover the same place.

I will not be defined by a name printed on a coffee cup, a classified zone on an airplane boarding pass, a health card, a hospital identification tag or even a Zone 5 disease. While doctors may declare ignorance I will claim life, because my life matters, and my faith in God’s love and omnipotence rules over all things, including Zone 5.

We must appreciate, observe and practice all that medical science has to offer. But we must not become embittered by its limitations. We move forward not with irrational or blind denial but with an intelligent belief that what is labelled impossible by others becomes possible for those who believe in and trust God.

As I exit the doors at PMH onto the streets of Toronto, I will never forget the smile on a patient’s face, when tested after completing her treatments and in great anticipation of her doctor’s analysis, while in the waiting room her name is called and she says, “That’s me!” Then her doctor says “all clear, it’s gone.” Zone 5 had not become a permanent place but one frame in life’s exciting and unpredictable journey.