Posted for Robert J. “Rosey” Rosenthal
Friday, April 9, 10:30 a.m.
I’m here with Alicia in the intensive care unit. She’s hooked up to a bunch of monitors, drips and IVs, and using an oxygen mask to help her breath. She’s giving instruction to the nurse about medication and sounds like a well-informed patient, authoritative and firm.
But she is very, very ill.
Alicia is taking a constant stream of pain killers — weak and tired, but somehow sharp and cognizant of everything that is going on in her room.
She has lost weight and her right leg, where the tumor in her hip started, has a tremendous amount of pain and discomfort.
But despite the drugs, the pain, the oxygen mask, the breathing tubes in her nose, and the constant hum and glow of the machinery she is hooked up to, Alicia is in relatively good spirits. And on this bright, clear, early spring morning, her room is alive with a steady stream of visitors.
I was the managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle five years ago when I asked Alicia if she would be willing to write about the discovery of her cancer and her fight with it. She took that on with grace and courage and a pure, uncompromising honesty.
Those stories became known as “Alicia’s Story” and were published in the Chronicle and read by tens of thousands of people around the world on the internet.
Earlier this week Alicia, whom I had not seen in a few years, sent word to me through a friend that she wanted me to know she was in the ICU.
When I arrived this morning, it was emotional for both of us. I hugged Alicia as best I could, and kissed her head several times, and then we just connected as our heads rested against each other.
Then we had a catch-up conversation with me doing most of the talking.
After a few minutes I asked her if she wanted to write anything. She said, ‘Yes, but you can write something, too.’ I had my laptop and soon I had it out. I was standing up and the laptop was resting on her bedside food and all-purpose table attached to her medical bed.
“You want to dictate to me,” I asked.
“No, just write what you see, write about what’s happening here,” Alicia said.
That’s how this happened, why I wrote this, and why I, or others, might write more.
At about 10:45, a young woman named Katie, a high school classmate of Alicia’s, walks in with an apple fritter and caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks.
“Yum,” Alicia says with a laugh.
Katie and Alicia chat and then Alicia begins breaking off small pieces of the fritter. She has to take off the oxygen mask to get at the fritter and slides the mask back on while she slowly chews. Baby Bear, a pretty bedraggled but much loved teddy bear, is next to Alicia on her bed.
A doctor comes in and discusses with Alicia increasing her pain medication and moving her into a “comfort care” room in a day or so. The doctor says it’s a nice room with a view, but they need to make sure the all the equipment is available in that room that Alicia will need.
Alicia tells the doctor that she is frustrated about the problems in getting her pain under control. She has to take a “hit” of oxygen, and it interrupts her conversation.
Alicia has been put on a continuous pain medication regimen, a drip. She and the doctor are in a deep conversation about the pain issues, and Alicia is direct and firm about what her needs are. Just brushing against her right leg causes intense pain – but because of her breathing problems, the level of pain medication must be monitored carefully.
Now she and the doctor are talking about the move to her “comfort care” room. Katie asks if the room is big enough for someone to spend the night with Alicia. The doctor says yes, the room is big enough, and that even Alicia’s dog, Clarabelle, can visit.
“Is it for sure Clarabelle can come?” Alicia asks.
“For sure,” the doctor answers.
The “comfort care” rooms are bigger, Alicia explains, allowing more options for family and close friends to visit her — visits that are purposefully limited in ICU.
“People can just come and sit there and be more comfortable and talk, and I don’t have to talk if I get tired,” Alicia explains.
“How’s your pain?” a nurse asks. Alicia is getting painkillers every 15 minutes.
“OK,” Alicia says.
Alicia suggests that before the 30-lb. Clarabelle comes to visit she be given a bath. Katie says that can be arranged, and they both laugh.
Another high school friend arrives. They talk about other friends and boyfriends.
Alicia laughs at some of the exchanges. Her laugh and voice are muffled by the oxygen mask, a rumbling echo.
Alicia reaches for the Frappuccino. “Sweet, sweet glorious thing,” she says as she begins to take a sip. The phone rings. Alicia is expecting call from a junior high friend who is in Rwanda.
She takes the straw from her lips and puts the cup on her bedside tray.
Talking is difficult for Alicia for more than 30 seconds at a time. She needs to keep the oxygen going. But she and the caller are talking about the past, their friendship and how Alicia is doing.
“Don’t worry, Kater. We totally did not know this was going to happen. I totally understand. You’re far away. Don’t worry, thanks Kater. I love you. Bye,” Alicia says.
She slowly hangs up the phone.
She keeps the mask on and shuts her eyes and dozes for a moment.
Another nurse comes in and asks, “How’s the pain?”