Adventures at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center


We’re staying on the fringes of a section of sprawling Houston called “the Medical Center,” our neighborhood a disjointed hodgepodge of highrises, some aesthetically interesting, others not so much so.

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View from our hotel window

However, we’re not visiting Houston to take in its architectural wonders; we’re here seeing medical wonders. Today Judy has an appointment with T-cell lymphoma guru Dr. Michelle A. Fanale, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the best in the nation. The series of buildings that constitute the Anderson complex is extensive, impressively massive, each adorned with the red-slashed cancer logo.

Our hotel, Wyndham Suites, is a mere 15-minute walk, so we hoof it through the blistering heat, sweat streaming from under my fedora. Judy has wisely ditched the wig, opting instead for a pastel aqua green headscarf that makes look like a lovely lean tropical Muslim.[1]

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As we drop into Anderson Café for breakfast, I practice my hobby of late, trying to ascertain who has cancer and who doesn’t. It’s harder than you might think. In the misnamed café (think cafeteria) I see no scarf-wearing or hatted women and only one ashen-faced fellow with the telltale baseball cap, though many people seem to have locomotion issues, and more than a few suffer severe obesity.

Once we’ve dumped our trash, we board the B elevators and shoot up to the Lymphoma/Myeloma center and have a seat and wait until Patricia, a smiling 50-something African American invites us into her office to process Judy’s admission. Patricia’s absolutely delightful, chatty, sincerely interested in us. As she goes over scads of information while Judy electronically signs permission after permission, I ask her if she’s a native Texan.

She theatrically bats her eyes. “Yes sir. Do you detect a hint of a drawl?”

She’s never been to Charleston but has been to North Carolina, where her Marine son was stationed. His wife’s from Virginia Beach, so she has been “to that beach.”

“I’m hoping you have some grandchildren,” I say.

Her eyes light up as she broadly smiles. “Eight,” And she was recently with all eight in Gatlinburg, which “was just breathtaking.”

The absolutely best news is that because Judy has met her deductible, 100% will be covered by our insurance.

“That’s the one good thing about having cancer,” Judy says.

We return to the seating area and another woman, a Latina, comes up and introduces herself as a sort of concierge. I mention that rumor has it that there’s a bar in the hospital, and she happily informs me that it’s true and that she’s glad to see I have my priorities right. She hands us her card and is off.

Once Judy has her vitals recorded, we enter the examination room where I continue to grade essays electronically. We meet our head physician’s nurse and someone shadowing her. Both are young, black, friendly but businesslike.

A brisk knock and a nurse practitioner enters, a husky young man around forty or so whom I deduce is Hawaiian because of his appearance and the fact that he greets people with “aloha.”

He has Judy give an oral history from the original discovery of the original tumor in July 2014, up through the reoccurrence in March of this year, all the way to last Thursday’s biopsy. These are painful recollections, especially the last five months.

Our next visitor is physician who has Judy sign forms giving permission to use her “fluids and tissues” for research. She’s probably about our age, short and rotund with curly black dyed hair.

“Forgive me if you can’t understand my English,” she says. “It’s Egyptian English.”

We assure her we can perfectly understand her. She asks Judy if she’s Lebanese, says she looks Lebanese, and goes on to add that even though Egypt has 7000 years of civilization, the Lebanese are more forward thinking. “They’re open,’ she says, “more progressive” – she rolls her r’s. “Now they’re just killing each other.” I mention that I hear it’s worse now that Mubarak’s gone.

“Yes,” she says. “It would be nice to have Mubarak back. It’s hard to run a country. You need to know what you’re doing.”

I mention Mr. Trump, and she smiles without comment and after a few minutes leaves us once again alone., assuring us that Dr. Fanale is a genius and that full recovery is possible. “You have to be strong,” she says. “I just had heart failure last week, and look at me. I’m strong.”

More essay grading.

Finally, Dr. Fanale arrives with a clipboard and an offered hand. She explains to us that because we don’t have a baseline PET scan to compare the latest growth that we need to have tests run tomorrow and from there decide to continue the present course of treatment (ICE with a future allo stem cell transplant) or not. She mentions several alternate options running off a list of polysyllabic drugs. She strongly suggests we have the theoretical stem cell at Anderson because they do hundreds a year and have specific knowledge of T-cell lymphoma reactions, which may differ from other cancer patient’s reactions.

“Well, I was just told you are a genius,”  Judy tells Dr. Fantale.

“I don’t know if I’m a genius,” she replies, “but I am an experienced expert in T-cell lymphomas.”

* * *

We’ll meet her again on Wednesday and discuss the results of the tests and treatment strategies.

I won’t say I left the joint upbeat, but it’s gratifying to know that several other options exist other than the one Judy has been following.  It also occurred to me that at least at MD Anderson immigration seemed to be working just fine.

Now, it’s time to snag Uber, hightail it to Kroger’s, stock up on some beer, and suffer through the Gamecock opener.

[1] As anyone who has traveled with us knows (right Beth Hudson Clifton), Judy has an aversion to taking taxis, so don’t blame me for making her walk half a mile to seek cancer treatment.


16 thoughts on “Adventures at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center

  1. Thank you for sharing your quest for coping with such a serious problem. The staff seems affable despite the seriousness of their job. Let me offer my promise of prayers for that is my only sincere contribution to you and Judy.

  2. Thinking of you and Judy and sending lots of love your way. Praying that your stay at MD Anderson will have you on the road to recovery. Love you two so much. Linda and Jim

  3. All is well in the hood thus far. The hatches have been battened and all seems secured. Talked to Bill yesterday and will check back today as we welcome Hermine to the low country. Soldier on brave ones, soldier on.

  4. Wesley — you are both incredible people, and will make it through this. MD Anderson is the place to be — glad you are there (of course, I’d rather that you didn’t have to be there). Thinking of you both a great deal.

  5. Judy has the the most charming Southern wit and radiant smile I have ever encountered. It saddens me to read that she isn’t well. Prayers and best wishes for you both, Janice

  6. So sweet picture of Judy, thank you for sharing that moment. I too think that you are at the right place , with the right environment and the right attitude! Wesley I enjoy reading your “journal/blog” Some writing reality to follow 2 friends dealing with a lot of decisions to make…you are so funny….love you both very much, Marie-Laure and John

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