Angels in masks
Since I was a little girl I would tell my mom that I saw angels. These were not apparitions. These were real people with whom we interacted in our daily lives, and I am not exactly sure what I saw. Perhaps I would see something in the nuances of facial expression or in their nature or behaviour. Or perhaps even something deeper in these people that I felt intuitively. Little did I know that this was only the beginning. That I would one day be blessed to meet my very own angels as I journeyed through my adult life. The angels in this story wore masks and were part of my journey through breast cancer and a double mastectomy.
But why tell this angel story now?
My angel story came to mind as I now see everyday the stories of the amazing medical staff around the world working tirelessly to help people affected by the Covid-19 virus. Real angels in masks and scrubs. Real heroes. And heroes like backabuddy doing the fundraising for them. Angels all around us – thank you for all you are doing.
My own angel story begins with me in a Cape Town hospital awaiting my double mastectomy. I had been diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of malignant breast cancer when I was 34 weeks pregnant with my second child. Some of the details of these stories are for another day and another chapter but fast forward 6 months and my baby was a gorgeous, healthy boy and we named him Koa. This Hawaiian name means strong and courageous and believe me he gave his mom the inspiration to be just that. His beautiful 4 year old sister Ka’lea (Hawaiian meaning Joy) was the kindest helper and a true source of joy to us. I had completed 6 months of chemotherapy which had actually gone reasonably well. I felt I was rocking my spiky grey hair look and somehow the double mastectomy was just the next thing on the list. Let me add here that clearly I had only managed those 6 months with a superhuman effort on the part of my husband, mom and dad, incredible friends and a tidal wave of prayer support and well wishes. I promise to write future posts with the stories of the people who fanned the flames when I could not.
Fight, perspective and growth
On an aside you may be wondering why I was not more concerned about this big thing called a double mastectomy. I don’t expect everyone’s story to be the same, but these are my reasons why I was able to make this my next necessary step:
1.) Fight for survival – I had watched my husband go through the life-changing loss of his mom to breast cancer. In my head I needed to feel that I had done everything I could to fight this thing. This was just a radical thing that I could do to make me feel I was fighting even though it did not necessarily mean I would win.
2.) Chemotherapy – 6 months of chemotherapy gave me the time to process the future loss of my breasts and it really paled in comparison to what many other cancer sufferers were going through. Some of my brave chemo room buddies had it so much harder and many did not have choices like surgery to improve their prognosis.
3.) Belief in the bigger me, the new me – I was blessed to know that my husband, family and friends did not just love me for my body parts. They loved me for the faith, fire and joy within me. And this gave me the courage to face the concept of a new me – a me who was bigger than a sum of body parts. A me who, if I watched closely might even grow to be MORE than I was before this journey.
A love of hospitals
Back to surgery day….
I remember that day so clearly. Friday 27 March 2015. I painted my toenails a funky orange and packed my hospital bags ( actually over packed if you ask anyone that knows me) . I had a moment with my husband Heath and the children before we left for the hospital and a few nervous tears were shed but overall we were focused and ready for the next step (again here insert massive credit to my mom and dad, the superhuman grandparents). At the hospital I unpacked. Heath popped out for lunch with a good friend. The surgeons came around and did drawings on me with a marker to map the outline of my breasts for the planning of the mastectomy and reconstruction process. We laughed and I felt such confidence in them and such gratitude for their bright and dedicated spirits. And I felt calm and ready. In retrospect, I realise that I actually thrive on the hospital environment. I worked in hospitals as a physiotherapist for 13 years and I just love the buzz of the teamwork and camaraderie.
However as the afternoon drew on I felt a little niggle of apprehension which grew as the early afternoon became late afternoon. I kept worrying that the surgery would be cancelled or that the surgeons would be too tired by the time it was my turn. I could feel that Heath was having the same thoughts. Eventually at 5:30 pm the porters arrived to pick me up. And at that moment, the calm I had felt all day just disappeared. I felt cold, sweaty and was consumed by a fear that I would die in surgery. My goodbye to Heath was too brief with a brave attempt at holding back tears from both of us. But those tears broke through the dam wall with a steady gush as I made my journey on that hospital bed through the sterile hospital corridors. Up and up we went in the lift and my angst grew.
A masked angel in blue
The doors opened and we pushed though into the theatre waiting area. My tears had stopped but my palms were damp. My heart thumped and I was cold, and then hot, and then cold all over again. I was scared. I have never been bothered by hospital garb before, but suddenly I was surrounded by gowned and masked figures and I just longed for a beaming smile from someone, anyone, under those bright harsh lights. And then it happened. Out of that big cold room came a beautiful figure in blue . Her dark hair was tucked into a theatre cap and a surgical mask covered her nose and mouth. “Hello Mrs Keyser. We will take care of you now.” Already her warm, soothing tones felt like someone had physically squeezed my hand and a tiny, warm pulse spread from my hand and up into my arm. I looked up at her to say thank you and my heart felt like it beat out of my chest with a burst of bright, fiery sparks. I was flooded with a feeling of being held and loved so very tightly. It was her name badge that had caught my eye and caused this reaction. In fact it was just a simple name sticker – she must have forgotten her badge that morning. But it was EVERYTHING and the ONLY thing that I needed. Proudly printed on that sticker in black ink was one word, one beautiful word, one incredible word – “Angel”.
Angels by my side
And so from that moment on everything went perfectly. I waited calmly for my surgeons.I looked around and really felt the warm, angelic smiles beneath the masks. (Let me add here that I was also seeing everything through a beautiful fuzzy haze as my contact lenses were tucked away in my bedside table in the ward room). And in that final moment before I went into the theatre the 3 surgeons gathered around my bed in jovial spirits . The plastic surgeon gave my feet a quick encouraging squeeze, showing again the warm beating heart beneath his professional exterior. And they didn’t look tired – not at all. They looked bold and strong, fired up and ready to go into battle with me – the next step on my journey– with angels by my side.
And as I wrote this post I realise how many fellow South Africans don’t have the means to access the kind of healthcare that I was privileged to receive. I want to give a shout out to Project Flamingo for the amazing work they do for breast cancer in state hospitals in South Africa. Angels everywhere…