I ordered a salad and sat down to read the latest news on BBC.com. I picked the dried cranberries out of my salad. Apparently cranberries have a high glycemic index and I was trying to avoid high glycemic everything. I couldn’t stop reading the news. I love the news. I was reading about the Rohinga, a stateless group of people who have been persecuted and remain at the center of a geopolitical conflict between Burma and Bangladesh. They were loading up into fishing boats, piled on top of one another, sailing for Malaysia in hope of a better life. They were turned away at the shore, mercilessly. I sipped my iced tea and got a text from the doctor. He and his wife had just landed. They spent the week in Reno learning about Ozone Therapy. “We are running behind. We should be there in around three hours to get you. We will get dinner, then hit Whole Foods to stock up for the week,” he wrote.
The doctor is calculated. I think he calculates how he will spend each second of each day. He wastes no time. No words. His purpose drives him in every aspect of his life. I wrote a quick reply, ‘I’ll be sitting outside. I’m wearing a gray turban.’ One couldn’t miss me.
My hair hadn’t started growing back, yet. I just finished 18 rounds of chemo. One time per week. Every Monday, I made my way to Methodist hospital for chemotherapy infusions. Even on the winter days when ice covered the roads, I went. I sat in a sterile plastic-y recliner and stared at mauve walls while they attached IV bags to my port that read “Bio Hazard”. I had an L.L. Bean down blanket that a few friends chipped in and sent me, along with a Katy Perry vinyl and fancy hand lotion. Everyone sent me lotion. I’m not sure why. That blanket quickly became my favorite thing. It’s a deep brown purplish color and is warmer than one would imagine. I would pull it over my head and doze off when the Benadryl started dripping. I have never liked sleeping in public. I always cover my face when I sleep. Something about drooling and looking dead in front of the general public doesn’t bode well with me. I wear a scarf when I travel so I can pull it over my face while flying.
The nurses usually went about their business, with the same enthusiasm as cashiers working at Kroger. Cavalier. “How are you today?” she would ask while unwrapping the port access needle. I would think to myself. ‘How do you think I’m doing? Life just served me a shit sandwich. I’m a 32 year old facing a diagnosis that mostly 60 year olds get. I have a shaved head and people poke and prod at me like I’m a farm animal. I just left southern California and right now, in Indiana, it’s snowing outside. I hate snow. The Internet tells me that if I live 5 years, I’ll be the one of the luckier ones. I’m paying back loans from my dream grad program that I’m not attending and paying for an apartment I San Diego that I’m not living in. I have one ovary and am going through menopausal hot flashes. All I want to do is drink whiskey and forget about everything.’ No, I’m not fine, ladies. Not at all. The oncology floor is a sad place, relegated to the back of the hospital, right under the psych ward. I always thought the proximity to the psych ward was strategic of them.
It was October, a week after my birthday. It was like someone pulled the pin and mercilessly launched a grenade at my face. I used to travel a lot for my job and had a slew of stomach problems we all thought were to blame on parasites from whatever foreign land I had drank water from. After a scan, my doctor in San Diego called me in. As we sat down to go over the results, she started by apologizing. ‘This is going to be bad,’ I thought. The conversation is a blur in my mind, but I remember the word malignant and ovary and cancer and her writing me a note to leave school for a month. I saw her lips moving but didn’t hear anything else after that… her facial expressions were concerning, but I got up to leave while she was still talking. She asked if I wanted to sit in a room by myself and I told her that I didn’t want to.
Within 12 hours I was on a plane headed back to Indiana to be with my family and see an oncologist. I thought the powers that be (God, the universe, fate, whathaveyou) had a sense of humor. I sat next to the head of gynecological oncology from IU health on the plane. His mustache and bow tie should have given it away. We had a chat over gin and tonic and he told me that radiologists are wrong a lot. A few days later I was in his office talking with his resident. She kept using the “C” word over and over. It was the worst day of my life. She told me I needed to get cut open, have a radical hysterectomy, and I’d wake up with IP ports for inter-peritoneal chemotherapy. For it being the worst day of my life, I was surprised at how cold and objective the medical personnel were. I commented on how sterile the room was. The nurse replied, “Well, what do you expect? You are in a gynecologist’s office.” It was obvious that I was an ID number that had the potential to earn the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was one of the most dehumanizing experiences I have ever dealt with. A good time for a pelvic and rectal exam is probably not within minutes of telling a person she has cancer and is going to have to have a radical hysterectomy. I didn’t know how things were supposed to work at that point. All I know is that I checked on the Internet to see how many pills it would take to kill a person of my weight and height. What kind of pills and how long would it take?
I got a second opinion. My second surgeon was calm, kind, and patient. I call him an angel in a bowtie. ‘What is with surgeons and bowties?’ I thought. Eight days after meeting him I was wheeled into his operating room. The first thing I saw was his table with all of the surgical knives and scalpels – I began hyperventilating as they put me under. I was gutted and woke up with a 9-inch vertical scar adorning my midsection. My surgeon was kind enough to go around my belly button, but he still took an ovary, a tube, my spleen, appendix, and a slew of other things that I didn’t know were missing until I read my pathology report. He opted to leave the ovary that didn’t appear to have disease in hopes that the cancer hadn’t spread too much. He said that it’s possible to take more things out as needed, but things can’t be put back in (duh! I thought). He was wrong about thinking things weren’t that bad. They staged it. IV. There is no stage V. Stage IV. The last stage. ‘Who did I piss off? I HAVE NEVER EVEN CHEATED ON MY TAXES. AND I HELP ORPHANS. AND POOR PEOPLE,’ I thought. What a raw deal.
A white Denali pulled up and Dr. Gonino and Mrs. Gonino both got out and threw their hands into the air to welcome me. It was like they had just won a race in the Olympics. They had smiles from ear to ear and embraced me like we weren’t meeting for the first time. We had only talked on the phone at that point. From the beginning of the entire health fiasco, they were there. Calling me, guiding me, praying for me. “Come see us as soon as you finish your last round of chemo,” Dr. Gonino told me. I hopped into their car and we sped away from Dallas Love airport. We were headed to a restaurant that served gluten free food.
I remember when I was 8 or 9 and I would go to my Uncle Rich’s house. He was my mom’s brother. Since she worked a lot, we would spend quite a bit of time at his house. His kids were older than my three brothers and me and I think he liked having us around, for the most part. I was always curious as a kid and because I asked so many questions, he put a limit on how many I was allowed to ask. All I wanted to do was ask Dr. Gonino and Mrs. Gonino questions. They answered my questions as fast as I could ask them. “How did you get into all of this?” “Most doctors aren’t like you, why does this all matter so much to you?” My experience with doctors and even a naturopath up to that point, save for my surgeon, was that I really didn’t matter as a person – I was a fiscal opportunity. My diagnosis put me in the perfect vulnerable position for a naturopath to exploit my fear of death and charge me exorbitant amounts of money to tell me that I should take papaya leaf extract for digestion. Papaya leaf extract.
I was devastated as I learned more and more about the medical system and, in my experience, everywhere I looked, I saw greed. Pharmaceuticals. People dying. Exploitation. The business of cancer. The overzealous propensity of doctors to write prescription drugs and start chemotherapy without explaining that other options like nutrition and herbs that can heal bodies, too (because of my advanced diagnosis, I opted for chemo treatment, but when I did go forward with it, it was a well informed decision). I was overwhelmed by the information and my experience with the system. My first oncologist appeared to think within the narrow scope of what she was taught in medical school. She didn’t dare deviate from what her textbooks detailed. In my second appointment with her, I presented the most relevant research regarding my treatment from the world’s foremost research institute on gynecological cancers. She had never heard of the research. It was cutting edge research that was proven to prolong and enhance quality of life, significantly. With a 5% chance of living a maximum of 5 years, all I knew at that time was that wanted all the quality of life I could get. “What else?” she asked. She brushed off the research and behaved like she needed to get to her next appointment. “Oh, and you don’t have time to wait or bank eggs. You need to start chemo as soon as possible. The chemo will kill the eggs in the ovary that you do have,” she said. It was like she was discussing the weather forecast. “I’ll be monitoring you throughout your 18 weeks of treatment with PET scans,” she added. I didn’t think that many PET scans were necessary. PET scans cost $12,000 each. No wonder.I got a second opinion and ended up liking my second oncologist. He treated me like a human. He understood things. And he was funny. He offered to give me hair tips. He was bald.
“How was Reno?” I asked the doctor and his wife as we ordered fresh cucumber juice. “I read about the doctor you were working with,” I said. “How was your flight?” ‘I love flying. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a plane. I love planes,’ I thought. I used to live on planes. I had no idea that planes can dehydrate a person so much. I didn’t eat the peanuts. All I did was drink water. I could have drunk about 5 gin and tonics, but didn’t. I love gin and tonic. I ordered the gluten free lasagna. Didn’t even know there was such a thing.
I could not believe how beautiful these people were – and I don’t just mean they are nice to look at. They are the type of people that are beautiful down to the core. I felt like I knew them for a long time. Their vivacious energy and joy is the kind that rubs off onto others. It radiates. It’s genuine. It’s the kind that you want to sit in and soak up because it’s so wonderful. We decided it was too late to go to Whole Foods when we left the restaurant. We pulled up to their home and Dr. Gonino showed me my room and I fell into bed without bothering to take out my contacts. I was told to show up at the office at 9am to start paperwork. Dr. Gonino handed me the set of keys to the white Denali. “These are yours for the week,” he said.
I had to Google hemoglobin. Mine was low. So was my white blood cell count. When I talked to Natalie about it, she explained to me that hemoglobin is important – it carries oxygen around the body. Low hemoglobin makes people feel tired, really easily. I felt like I had flown to Johannesburg and back – twice. I was exhausted and felt jet lagged. Chemo dropkicked my bone marrow and during the last two weeks of it, I started feeling inexplicable exhaustion. All I wanted to do was sleep. And I was anemic. I felt nervous. I felt tired. And it took every ounce of willpower I could conjure to pull myself out of bed and drive 10 minutes to Dr. Gonino’s office. The brick sign out front read “Gonino Center for Healing”. I liked the sound of that.
The building is gorgeous. The face is stone and the double doors at the entrance are made from a beautiful wood. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the scent of peppermint wafting through the air. They are diffusing peppermint oil into the air! There is this amazing fountain type of thing hanging on the back wall behind the receptionist and there is real artwork on the walls. Real artwork. Someone took the time to get nice things to hang up to look at. The chairs in the waiting room aren’t plastic. The floors are wooden and not that plastic stuff that looks like wood, but real wood. I love aesthetics and think that all places of healing would be wise to prioritize the healing atmosphere that beautiful aesthetics create.
Brittany opened the door at reception and called my name to come back. She’s Allie’s sister. She is full of energy. I met Allie in Johannesburg. She had just flown in from LA to head to Swaziland with a crew and myself. Allie is Dr. and Mrs. Gonino’s daughter and a good friend of mine. I was fortunate to get to travel with her through the mountains of Swaziland. She is an activist for clean water and justice, a talented actress and musician, has a heart of gold, and a soul as old as the earth. She’s wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. She also looks like a garden fairy. She insisted that I talk with her parents after my diagnosis and that’s how I ended up in Texas. Brittany hugged me and told me she was glad I was there. She pricked my finger and put my blood under a microscope that projected it onto a screen. Looking at red blood cells on a big screen television is mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were. “Your white blood cells are sparse,” she said. Chemo does that. I wanted them back. They help fight off infection. I wanted a lot of things back. After I saw Brittany, Lacy escorted me into the exam room where we were talking and waiting for the doctor. She read my chart aloud. I started crying. Even though I had just marched through the most difficult five months of my life, the “C” word still elicited a barrage of emotions. Lacy put her pen down and came over to me and hugged me. She handed me a box of tissues and said, “It’s not good to hold it in. Let it out sista.” She waited. She didn’t rush. She let the moment unfold and sat in it with me. That had never happened to me before. Nurses. Hugging. I was shocked. ‘What is this place?’ I thought.
The last time I had an experience with the medical system prior to my flaying, I was 13. I was sitting in a waiting room waiting for a doctor to come out to tell me that my mom was okay. She wasn’t okay. The doctor was crying and told us that my mom had died. A year prior to that, I watched my father waste away from bone cancer. I had been traumatized by hospitals and medical personnel ever since. I liked Lacy.
Dr. Gonino bounced into the room with so much energy that I thought he had just drank an entire pot of coffee. He doesn’t drink coffee, though. I think he wakes up at like 4am and meditates and does all of the things that make him seem like a magical superhuman unicorn mystical type of Mr.Myagi combo. He came in, hugged me, and started talking in his doctor language as fast as the guy from the mini micro machines commercials from the 90s. He did an exam and told me that the crusty yellow junk leaking out of my fingernails was a fungus and that I had fresh blood in my nose. I was used to my nose bleeding. Chemo is merciless. He wanted to start me on IV vitamins and minerals right away, chiropractic, massage, lymph stimulation, and a slew of other things. “Forget the path report,” he told me. “Your attitude is everything. God heals,” he said. He gave me another hug and marched out in his snakeskin cowboy boots with a gigantic smile across his face. By the time he closed the door, Lacy had been furiously jotting down notes and had already put together a personalized booklet of information for me along with a protocol that I was to begin immediately. She was scheduling appointments for me and taking care of all the business. Next, the office manager handed me a typed out detailed schedule of my next two weeks and the patient coordinator was giving me her personal cell phone number and praying over me as she walked me to the infusion room so I could get pumped full of vitamin C.
Walking into the infusion room was like walking through the wardrobe C.S. Lewis imagined for all of us. I saw floor to ceiling windows overlooking a lush field of trees and a small lake. Everything was green. I cried. Again. It was so light and so beautiful. I was on the back end of 18 grueling weeks of hell. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t lost my mind at that point. I was so jaded and sad and my soul was so exhausted and tired of fighting. The room was like a haven. I let out a gigantic exhale and Annette, the infusion boss lady, took incredible care of me. She noticed I was crying and asked me why. I told her it was that the room was so great. I loved the way the light poured in through the windows. My idea of exciting shifted from volcano sledding in Nicaragua to sitting in a room with floor to ceiling windows and readily accessible green tea. Decaf, of course. Annette cried with me. She looked at my chart. “We’re the same age,” she said. I think it affected her. “You’re going to be alright,” she told me.
The next two weeks were packed. I spent my days working with Mrs. Gonino, trying to soak up as much as I could from her. I saw the doctor, got infusions of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and started taking supplements. I attended yoga that Dr. Gonino offered to his patients, complimentary, two times a week. I also did Tai Chi for the first time, and it was so so fun. In addition to all of the incredible things the Goninos do for their patients, they have a cancer support group. Dr. Gonino arranged a special meet up for me during the support group time. He has been treating a woman with my same diagnosis – her diagnosis was 25 years ago. He wanted me to meet her and know that women walk through this diagnosis and live long vibrant lives. I met Inez at the support group and that day. She brought me a blue bracelet with a cross on it – encouraging me and hugging me.
Dr. Gonino and Mrs. Gonino have a motto. It’s “Love Heals.” When I first read that as a bumper sticker on their cars, I was a bit confused because they are so incredibly professional but their mantra has some hippie vibe to it that didn’t make sense to me. As the days passed, I saw that, in the most incredible way, they believe love heals and they give and give and give love freely. I am not sure that I have ever met two people in my life that are so alive and brimming with love. The Goninos and their staff were a constant demonstration of that truth to me. Love truly is what sets them apart from other health practitioners. They pray for their patients, they wish others well and prosperity, they operate out of a place of ruthless honesty, and don’t operate out of fear – fear of getting sued or fear of anything. It’s like Dr. Gonino knows, with certainty, why he is here on this earth and every day lives out health for himself and others.
As my two weeks at the Gonino Center for Healing started to wrap up, I was a bit sad because I had made such good friends with the Goninos – I felt like they were like family. We drank green juice together, laughed at Modern Family together, and talked about health and vitality together. Dr. Gonino even brought me dinner when I was in the hospital getting a blood transfusion. On a Friday night. Then Mrs. Gonino showed up after that with snacks and a gigantic smile. They both constantly encouraged me. I had a friend meet me in Dallas so we could drive back to Indiana together. Dr. Gonino consulted her on her health, too! One minute they were having a casual conversation and the next minute he was loading her up with vitamins and supplements for her health. He. Doesn’t. Stop. Taking. Care. Of. People. It’s who he is. If you get within a 2-foot radius of Dr. Gonino he will start taking care of you.
I made so much progress during my time with Dr. Gonino that when I left Texas, I felt empowered and educated. I was ready to continue each day with a fresh outlook and commitment to my health. The day after I left (and still, today), I got a text from Dr. Gonino – he wanted to make sure that the trip was going well and everything was all right. What an incredible person, so full of love and genuine compassion that on his weekend away from work, he continued to protect and check in on my health. Though I am miles away from Dr. Gonino and Mrs. Gonino and their staff, I know that any question I have will be answered and anything I need from them will be taken care of. That, my friends, is a miracle. I will always be infinitely grateful for my time with Dr. Gonino and Mrs. Gonino and their incredible staff. It goes without saying that I recommend that everyone in the world see this doctor.