The arrow and the three bars

In March 2019, we were at Sloan-Kettering every day. I never got used to it. Every time I entered the building, I had the same stomach-ache. Every time I left, I felt the same relief. This wasn’t a reflection on the facilities, which, as doctors’ offices go, are very comfortable: no blaring televisions, no pharmaceutical advertisements, no crowded conditions, well-selected art on the walls presented MoMA style, consideration from the staff and schedulers. Waits were often long. They’d come in terrible threes: first, we’d wait in the reception area to be called into an examination room, then, we’d wait for a nurse to come in and take vitals, and then we’d have the hardest wait of all for the doctor. The surgeon was always tremendously sweet to us. Her name still makes my heart jump any time I hear it.

It’s not just anxious old me. My uncle, a celebrated doctor who has lived in the hospital district of New York for more than fifty years, admitted to me that he’s always been scared of Sloan-Kettering. Years before we ever stepped foot in the hospital, I’d get a private shiver whenever I’d seen the arrow and the three crossbars. Sometimes, during reflections, I’ve wondered whether I didn’t have a premonition that our paths would take us to Sloan. Then I realize how silly that is. Cancer is epidemic, especially in urban New Jersey. We were always running the risk of long waits in those examination rooms. They just came sooner than I’d have bet.

The doctor who first diagnosed Hilary wasn’t at Sloan-Kettering, but he’d logged time there during a long career. He didn’t exactly warn us off — he assured us we’d get the best care possible if we chose to receive treatment there — but he did describe the operation as a massive one, and hinted that the experience at the hospital could be overwhelming. Our cousin, who’d also worked there before choosing a more emotionally survivable medical specialty, echoed these sentiments. He called it a factory. Nevertheless, he, and my uncle, and everybody else in our families said the same thing: Hilary needs to go to Sloan.

We did. I worried, privately, that we’d made the wrong decision. The doctor in New Jersey had been very kind; better than that, he’d been responsive to all of Hilary’s questions. He’d called her several times to see how she was doing, and personally intervened in an insurance issue on her behalf. It seemed to me that we were trading a fruitful personal connection, one with a highly respected doctor, for a reputation. Once there, it took me months to warm up to the place, and the people, and even the aesthetic, which felt cold and aggressively Manhattanite. Eventually my misgivings were worn down by the friendliness of the support staff and the attentiveness of the doctors. Complete comfort still eludes me, and it probably always will.

The staff at the hospital would never put anything medically vital in a generic e-mail message. Nevertheless, e-mail correspondence from Sloan-Kettering sets off alarm bells, even when it’s just a confirmation of an appointment, or a health bulletin they’re surely sending to hundreds of thousands of people. Yesterday, a rare feeling of midday serenity was shattered by a message from Sloan-Kettering. It contained a link to a forty-minute phone seminar, held by doctors and nurses, about the effects of the pandemic on treatment and recovery. I didn’t want to click on it. But I’ve been worried, daily, about the status of Hilary’s immune system. Here were some answers — maybe not the ones I wanted to hear, but the ones I needed to hear in order to get through the crisis of the moment. In that way, it was not unlike a visit to the hospital’s main campus, and the doctor’s exam room.

The tone of the seminar, which you can hear right here if you’re curious, was broadly and blandly positive in the specific manner that I’ve come to expect from the hospital. The chief of their infectious-diseases unit reassured listeners that many Sloan-Kettering patients, even seriously ill ones with compromised immune systems, had recovered from the effects of coronavirus without needing hospitalization or intensive care. Another doctor talked about a test for the virus that the staff had developed, on their own, and before testing had been implemented in any widespread fashion in America. Any patient showing symptoms would be tested on the spot, and results would come back in twenty-four hours; in the meantime, they’d likely be sent home with a pulse oximeter. They made it plain, indirectly but unmistakably, that they’ve got personal protective gear, and they’re cleaning the facilities constantly. And they reaffirmed a policy change that, frankly, breaks my heart — until the hospital sounds the all-clear, visitors won’t be allowed to accompany patients to their treatments or appointments. The next time Hilary has to go to Sloan-Kettering, she’ll be on her own, in a mask, and I’ll be quaking on a park bench somewhere.

But that is a worry for another day, especially since there’s more than enough to worry about today. The message from the hospital simultaneously shook me up and settled me. I don’t want to have to think about Sloan-Kettering during a pandemic, even though I constantly do, and I’m grateful that they got in touch, even if it was via blast e-mail, even if I never want to hear their names, even if I owe them too much to quantify. I’m relieved that they’re making it through this societal crisis, and they remain focused on the thousands upon thousands of individual crises that circumstances compel them to contend with. I trust they’ll be there for us — however dispassionately, however diagnostically.