Thursday, December 30, 2010

A visit to the heel healer

As seen in Martha Stewart Living

For a day, the space under the piano was decorated with not one, but two, pairs of goalie pads. I liked the decor enough to take this photo.

There were two because Joe had taken out a pair that he was selling because they were not the regulation size for college play. This afternoon we were back to one pair. Notice that I too am a participant in the living room's sports motif: My green exercise ball is sticking out from the other end of the couch.

Speaking of sports, I am going to play tennis tomorrow for the first time in weeks. On Tuesday, I saw my foot doctor, Ken Holt, who said that my plantar-fasciitis flare-up was probably due to stiffness in part of my foot, probably because I was inactive for so long. He made me a new pair of soft orthotics to take the pressure off my heel, which he said was hitting the ground earlier than it should.

(I'm sorry if this ailment doesn't fascinate you as much as it fascinates me. I think that only people who've had it can understand the pain.)

He also said to do runner's stretches frequently throughout the day and to continue wearing the brace at night, and it should heal quickly.

As I've said, Holt, who is a physical therapist, is a foot guru to many sufferers. He's a soft-spoken Englishman with a home office in Shutesbury, Mass., out in the boondocks. Just driving there through the woods over snow-covered roads, I felt like I was on a healing mission.

Katie came along with me, and afterwards we stopped for a hot chocolate and cappuccino at the nearby Cushman Market and Cafe´on another snowy back road. It was nice to be off the beaten track, the smell of wood stoves in the air...and to be optimistic that soon I might have happy feet.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Searching for coffee and bagels

What's a Jewish person to do on Christmas when you don't live in a city? What if you want a good cup of coffee? Barry and I decided to investigate.

Except for the handful of Chinese and Japanese restaurants, everything was closed in normally-busy Northampton. Then we came to Starbucks, bearing a big banner, Open on Christmas Day. Success! It was shortly before 1:30 p.m. I got my cappuccino and lemon pound cake and even found a copy of The New York Times, which hadn't been delivered that morning. I was happier still.

Barry got his coffee and we found a table where we settled down for a good chat about this and that. Shortly before 2, an employee announced that the store was closing soon. We hadn't noticed that it was only open until 2. Our happiness was short-lived.

Determined, we headed for Amherst, where we found the Black Sheep deli open. Got more coffee (OK, and a strawberry peach cobbler that I decreed healthful enough to count for lunch) and found a table. It was about 2:20. We then realized that the cafe was closing at 3.

We had enough time to sit and laugh and to finish our conversation from before. Next year, the coffee search begins earlier.

Ben, Joe and Katie returned from Jim's mid-afternoon, and we had our Chinese food that night.

Diane and her family had planned to come yesterday for our delayed Hanukkah celebration, but snow began to fall by noon and continued through the day, so we postponed until next Sunday. I had a fridge full of dinner food, including two chickens, but nothing for lunch. Deb and Charlotte headed over, saying they would bring bagels.

Thus began another search, this one for a store that wasn't sold out of bagels. They tried two bakeries with no luck. At their third stop, Whole Foods, they found one bagel and assorted muffins. I put out some fruit plus cheese, crackers and salami and sliced vegetables. Next year, we stock up on bagels ahead of time. Either that or move to New York.

We had good strong coffee and a nice visit at the kitchen table while the kids hung out in the den. Ben left around 1 as the snow began to thicken. Our company left, and I walked the dog as the wind whipped up snow that stung my face. I was glad to get back inside the warm house. I baked a chicken, and then we stayed up late watching a movie...and eating the dessert I had planned to serve.

We haven't had a decent Nor'easter in a long time. It was good to feel snowed in and hear the gusting wind outside while we sat inside, cozy on the couch.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday gatherings galore

Gary, Mark, me and Rook at Thursday's beer dinner.

The night before the night before Christmas dinner, held at the Sierra Grille in Northampton, was a lot of fun.

The five-course dinner featured five beers from Dogfish Head, the Delaware-based craft brewery whose slogan is "Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People." I went with friends from the year I spent at Wesleyan University as part of the 12-college exchange with Vassar; one of the guys, Gary Steinel, is a card-carrying Beer Drinker of the Year with more knowledge about beer than I ever thought possible.

Gary is friendly with Dogfish head founder and president Sam Calagione, host of the Discovery Channel's Brew Masters series, who entertained diners in between courses with tales about the beginnings of the brewery and the sometimes exoteric ingredients they use.

I like getting together with the Wesleyan friends, who include Rook, aka Jeff Van Nest, my old boyfriend and current good buddy; and another good guy, Mark Nickerson, an Amherst psychotherapist . When the three of them start chattering about things I don't understand, such as the super-duper components on Rook and Gary's bikes, it doesn't really matter what they're saying. Their voices sound just the same as they did a gazillion years ago at Wesleyan. It takes me back.

In deference to my delicate liver, I probably shouldn't have had quite so much beer, but hey, I hardly drink at all, and it is the holiday season.

Mark's daughter, Geneva, and his niece, Brittany,
brought some extra sparkle to our table.

Me with Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione.

My kids spent Christmas Eve with Jim in Enfield. I went to my friend Korby's house for her family's annual Christmas Eve gathering in Agawam. It was a festive event with a warm and friendly group of people, and I was happy to feel a part of Korby and Pete's extended family.

Korby prepared a scrumptious buffet, with the main dish, Portuguese salt cod, prepared by her son-in-law, Philippe, with help from wife Keegan (Korby's daughter) in keeping with Portuguese Christmas Eve tradition.

Korby, Philippe and Keegan with his Pièce de résistance

Tomorrow, Ben, Joe and Katie will return mid-afternoon. We haven't firmed up our plans, but I'd like to go out for Chinese food, the traditional Jewish Christmas meal.

Then on Sunday, I'll host the Day After Christmas Faux-Hanukkah party. We figured God would understand this rescheduling of a minor holiday that fell in early December this year. None of the college kids could come on real Hanukkah, and this way we can celebrate the way it should be done, with gift-giving, candle-lighting, family and extended family and good eating.

Well I hope the eating is good. We'll set the table with my mother's nice things, so at least it will look pretty!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Busy busy

Let sleeping dogs lie

Well, she was sleeping until I woke her up by creeping along the floor to get a good angle for a picture.

Maddie has seemed happier since Katie and Joe came back. I had thought she looked depressed, or maybe I was projecting my feelings onto her.

In any case, when the kids left and I cried about my empty nest syndrome, people said they'd be back before I knew it. And sure enough, here they are. The first few days I tripped over suitcases and smiled in welcoming back some of the old chaos. A few days after that, when the obstacle course was still there, I wasn't so happy about it and lugged the suitcases into a certain person's room. Out of sight, out of mind.

Adding a certain je ne sais quoi to the living room, Joe's hockey bag is under the piano, his stick is resting on a wood beam, and a laundry basket leans against a wall. Rolls of Christmas and Hanukkah wrapping paper are laid out on the floor, and a wooden bench is filling up with Hanukkah presents (in blue) and Christmas presents (in gold and red).

It's definitely lively.

Last night I went with Joe and Katie to Jim's house, where we had dinner and they put up and decorated the tree while I watched, curled up under a blanket on the couch.

They will go to their father's for Christmas Eve and Day, and then on Sunday, Diane and her family will come here for the Hanukkah celebration that we couldn't have on the real Hanukkah because the college kids couldn't come home. You don't move the serious Jewish holidays, but we figured this one was OK. Ben and hopefully his girlfriend Meg will come, as will Deb and Charlotte, our extended family.

Tomorrow night I plan to go to the Sierra Grill in Northampton for the annual Night Before the Night Before Christmas beer dinner, a five-course meal with a beer for each course from Dogfish Head brewery (I'm having pheasant.) I've done this before with friends from my junior year at Wesleyan University, and it's a lot of fun.

This time last year I couldn't go because I was still not allowed out in public drinking beer and eating restaurant food. The year before I was in the hospital, having just relapsed.

Going out will be good. Since I don't drink very much, I'm sure my friends won't mind finishing my beer...unless the beer is so good that I need to drink most of it myself.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Whine time

When I saw Melissa at the clinic on Monday, she said that she would let me know if Dr. Alyea wanted to increase the prednisone.

I didn't hear anything all week, so I thought I had dodged a bullet.

Until yesterday, that is, when I got a voicemail from Melissa saying that they want me to increase to 20 mg. This is still not a huge dose, but it sure is higher than 5.

She said it will probably get my liver to where it's supposed to be and also help my platelets.

I whined to Katie this morning.

"Better prednisone and platelets than no prednisone and no platelets," she said.

Well put.

I walked into yoga last night limping, and Erin asked what the problem was. I told her about the recurrence of the dreaded and dreadful plantar fasciitis.

"This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me," I wailed.

She knows better, and of course I do too. We both cracked up.

She devoted some time to exercises stretching and massaging the sole of the foot and talking about fascia, the layer of fibrous tissue that permeates the body.

I had intended to wear the boot to bed last night. I thought I saw it sticking up from a box of stuff. Then I realized that I was seeing wrist braces, which I had worn when I had twinges of carpal tunnel syndrome from typing so much at work. I looked really great back then when I went to bed with wrist braces and a big black boot.

I remembered lending the boot to a fellow plantar fasciitis sufferer, but I couldn't remember getting it back. I called her and she said she still had it. She brought it over this morning, so tonight I'll put it on.

I hope at least my wrists hold out.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On the road again

I've been on the road since early Sunday, when Jim, Katie and I drove to Bates (in Lewiston, Maine) to watch Joe play in a hockey game against Keene State.

It poured all day and night. The game was at 3 p.m.; we had planned to meet Joe for lunch, but we got there late, so we didn't see him. After the game, we saw him for about 15 minutes before hitting the road and driving back for about three and a half hours.

It was worth it, though. For good reasons, until this season I had missed all of his college hockey career. This hockey mom thing is like riding a bike. You might fall off, but once you get back on, you remember right away. Ah, those freezing cold rinks, the slightly pungent warm rooms, the blankets shared with other hockey moms to keep your rear end warm on the cold bleacher, and, of course, the excitement of getting into the game.

Joe plays goalie, and it is always extra-exciting to watch him make great saves and scary to watch the offensive players crowd around him (as in, "Stay away from my baby!").

Bates beat Keene State 5-4 in overtime. Yay!

We had gone in separate cars to Brandeis, where we picked up Katie and drove to Maine in my car. On the way back, we stopped at Brandeis, they got in Jim's car and drove back home (Katie is done with the semester) and I drove about 15 minutes to Newton, where I spent the night at Diane and David's.

Yesterday I had my check-up at Dana-Farber. My best news is that my hematocrit, at 36, is finally normal. My platelets, however, dropped to 59, which explains the bad bruising I got after my dental surgery. Melissa said this is because my liver enzymes are still elevated. I might need to increase the prednisone; she is going to consult with Dr. Alyea and let me know. I still need two teeth pulled, but I have to put it off for now. So sad.

Last night I stayed at Margaret and Nick's, also nearby in Needham. Another friend of hers was there too, and we had a delicious festive dinner. Their teenage son, Natty, wanted to go do something about 9:30. To prove that we were spontaneous, we went out into the cold and drove to one of the only open stores, TJ Max. Along the way, we admired the holiday lights. Needham has a blue and white theme, and there is one huge especially beautiful blue tree.

My ankle weights don't fasten right, so I made the exciting purchase of new pair.

Natty wanted to look around more; the photo below is of Mary, Margaret and me resting on a bench.

This morning I went to a good yoga class with Diane, followed by coffee.

I had an afternoon appointment with a dermatologist who used liquid nitrogen to freeze between six to eight (I lost count) precancerous spots. This was not fun.

The yoga instructor had said to drink plenty of water; I was going to ask if drinking strong coffee counted.

I am trying to save money, and I am afraid I spend too much on coffee. Still, my face burned. I needed to stay awake for the hour-and-a-half drive home in the dark. Two good reasons to splurge.

So I stopped at Starbucks and headed home.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Foot fault

I thoroughly enjoyed my private tennis lesson with George on Wednesday, but my foot was not so happy.

I am afraid the crazy-making plantar fasciitis might be returning. This is an inflammation that leads to heel pain on an area about the size of a quarter. It hurts like crazy. When I had it after my first remission in 2003, I complained more about it than I ever complained about cancer.

People who have had it know what I mean. It is just infuriating and incredibly painful. A lot of runners get it, but others are not immune.

To treat it, I got cortisone shots, stretched a lot and rolled my bare foot over a tennis ball to stretch out the ligament. I went to a chiropractor. I took Advil. At night I wore an ungainly boot that keeps your foot flexed. I got several pairs of orthotics until I got the right kind from a physical therapist.

Before those orthotics straightened me out, I had to skip tennis and running for months.

Over the years I've felt a few twinges and panicked, but it never flared up. I'm hoping this will turn out to be one of those instances.

For starters, I probably need new orthotics. Mine, a soft kind, are worn down and chewed around the edges by a certain puppy. I hadn't thought about it much because I've been relatively inactive for so long.

On Thursday I had an appointment with my podiatrist, Walter Wolf, to check on the toenail surgery he had performed – not related to the plantar fasciitis. I told him my symptoms, and he pressed on the area in question. Yup. It hurt a lot.

Wally said I had an overuse injury. He said to stretch more, to ice after exercise, to wear the boot and to skip tennis on Friday.

Not the boot again! Not skipping tennis!

I whined about these terrible prospects.

As I asked in an earlier post when I had a similar response to some other inconvenience, "What am I, ten years old?"

Actually, since in transplant terms I am less than 2 years old, maybe that is my excuse for responding, and behaving, like a child.

I didn't wear the boot. I played tennis Friday morning, had a terrific time...and got another ace. Once I got moving, my foot felt fine.

My heel is killing me today.

I might have to behave for a few days.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Laughter and tears

I spent all day yesterday at the Dana-Farber, not as a patient but instead as a freelance writer doing a story about the Jimmy Fund Clinic, where I shadowed a nurse to learn about her day caring for young patients with cancer.

The article is scheduled to run in April in Dana-Farber's magazine, Paths of Progress.

It was an intense day, and last night I thought I'd never get to sleep. The faces of the children with cancer kept flashing before my eyes. First I saw a toddler in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, a pacifier in his mouth and tears streaming down his cheeks. He was propped on his father's shoulder as the dad walked back and forth.

It's not going to be a sad story – the place in fact is brimming with optimism, and a lot of the kids were having fun in the play area just like it was any old day with a bunch of friends – but the basic reason for them being there is sad in itself.

I am still processing everything I heard and saw.

I stayed overnight at Margaret's and drove back home this morning. When I turned on the radio, I heard John Lennon singing "Give Peace a Chance." It was the 30th anniversary of Lennon's death, and I happened upon a wonderful program, the NPR show On Point, titled "Politics, Pop and Power." Host John Ashbrook moderated a discussion about Lennon's life and legacy, with bits of his songs and Beatles songs woven in.

I remember we teeny-boppers running to the store to buy the early 45s and then running home to play them on the record player. I wanted my parents to hear, and as I remember, their reaction was neither here nor there, sort of a "That's nice, dear."

Each of my friends had a favorite Beatle. I was a Paul girl, but I liked them all.

At first I couldn't believe it when I heard that Lennon had been shot. I was shocked and devastated, just like everyone else.

You look back knowing how it all turned out and you marvel at your innocence back then.

When I got home in the early afternoon today, I had time to walk Maddie before heading to see the surgeon who had pulled two teeth last week. While waiting, I read the New York Times story about Elizabeth Edward's death.

The surgeon said my mouth looked fine. Because I got so black-and-blue, he suggested that I do the next two teeth one at a time. Wow. Double the fun.

Then I headed to tennis. I was the only one who showed up for George's clinic, so got a private lesson. I hit a lot of ground strokes, which he said looked great. He pointed out that I was really running for balls now.

I had a little more trouble when we went to the net for volleys. I have a habit of bending my elbow instead of keeping my arm straight; he said many tall people do that. (He took out the milk carton that he has many players put on their arm to keep it straight, but he didn't make me use it.) You get more power if your arm is straight.

He also had to keep reminding me to step before I hit, instead of after, and to bend my knees to get under a low ball.

"Let me see how far down you can get," he said. I bent my knees and got pretty far down. "Great, but I'll never get up," I said. "Sure you will," said the optimist.

He was making me work.

It went like this:

Step step step! Racquet up! Elbows! Elbows elbows elbows!

That last "elbow" cracked me up, and I missed the ball.

"Why'd you miss?" George asked.

"Because I was laughing!"

He grinned.

"You can hit and laugh too."

Laughing is good.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Triggers and more

Things are going well.

Yet it doesn't take much to push me off track into what my friend PJ calls The Dark Side. Yesterday's trigger was a New York Times story headlined "Transplant Patients Put at Risk By a State's Financial Distress," about a new law signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer eliminating Medicaid coverage of certain kinds of transplants as a cost-cutting measure.

Not everyone in need of a life-saving organ or bone marrow transplant is entitled to government money to receive one, but this was a case of patients in line to receive transplants and then denied them. For example, one man was prepped for a liver transplant and then told that his family needed to bring $200,000 as a deposit; he was discharged, and the liver went to someone else.

Despite how you feel about where to draw the line on government spending for health care, this was a heartbreaking story. The part that got me personally came when different sides started bandying about leukemia statistics. The state Medicaid agency had presented an analysis of the transplants that were cut, saying that 13 of 14 patients who received bone marrow transplants over a two-year period died within six months.

"But outside specialists said the success rates were considerably higher, particularly for leukemia patients in their first remission," according to the story.


Statistics, except of course the really good ones, make me jittery. I know each of us is an individual, not a statistic. It was reassuring to hear specialists saying success rates are higher, but the words "particularly for leukemia patients in their first remission" made me shudder. What about patients in their third remission? The story implies success rates are lower, and I have no doubt that they are, but I don't want to hear about it.

I also started worrying about my Medicare services being cut. What if....? Everyone knows that asking "what if" gets you nowhere. But still, when you get stuck in the Dark Side, it's hard to stop.

While perusing the calendars at the Odyssey Bookshop before I read the story, I came upon a wall calendar with a few calming sentences for each month by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. They are a way to help you focus on your breath, such as "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile." I read them on the wall calendar but didn't buy it. I have them in a book; although they are helpful, you don't even need to say them. You can just count your breaths, for example up to 10 and back.

After the Times story got me going, I couldn't remember any of the sayings. My heart racing, I thought of taking an Ativan. Instead, I sat down on the couch next to the dog and read a book.

Meanwhile, due to having two teeth pulled, I didn't do much during the week except walk Maddie. I decided to go to yoga today, but there was no class that fit my schedule (read: too early) where I usually go. So I went to another studio where I like the teacher and the space.

I came out crankier than when I went in.

A kid yoga class (read baby-sitting) was going on in a walled-off space inside the studio. You couldn't see the kids, but you could hear them. They squealed and laughed and tumbled around while their instructor had them take monkey pose and such. I got more and more annoyed. I told myself to chill out. Hey, it was the sound of children laughing, not anything terrible like bombs dropping. It didn't work.

I asked a man on our way out if the kids bothered him.

"No, I didn't hear them at all," he said.

"Bad yogini," I scolded myself.

Afterwards I took Maddie for a long walk through the woods and around a field. It was a dreary day, cold and gray. But I stopped several times on the path and looked up at the bare treetops, dark against the sky. It was quiet and soothing. I had a few words with Maddie, who insists on grabbing big sticks and staying close to me, whacking my legs along the way. I finally got her to go in front of me, and she looked so cute trotting with her over-sized stick that I had to laugh.

This post is getting too long, but I have one more thing to say.

Several of us have written lately that we are unhappy about our looks.

We are not having a contest for most messed-up face, but still, I am going to lay claim to that title. The swelling has gone down on the cheek where the teeth were pulled, but I have a big black-and-blue mark reaching under my chin and over my lip.

I am not going to post a photo.