Eamon Baker is one of Derry’s best known community workers. Today in a frank and open piece Eamon shares the diary and pictures he kept after he was diagnosed with a tumour in his right kidney earlier this year.
Thursday March 13th
He’s in his green scrubs. He speaks directly. There is no escaping his words: “You have a tumour Mister Baker in your right kidney. We will need to remove that kidney. Many people survive on one kidney. Do you want to see your scan? You see it there. The tumour is 6 cms …..Hopefully in removing your kidney we will be removing all the tumour”
All told in a few minutes. Then he is gone. Back to surgery.
The uro-oncology nurse specialist who has led me into that wee room at Outpatients 4 Altnagelvin stays on. She speaks softly. She asks me: “Am I here alone? Do I want to ring someone?” I ring and there is no answer. I ring again . No answer. I don’t want to leave a message. I ring my colleague Maureen at Towards Understanding and Healing and blurt out this news. She is stunned. I am stunned.
The uro-oncology nurse is calm. Reassuring. “Mister Mulholland is the best of surgeons. You are in very safe hands.” She talks of the operation being done on Monday March 31st. I will need to see the anaesthetist before then, she tells me. I tell her I know her dad. I’d rather talk about her dad than talk about cancer. She is kindly.
I hear what she is saying and I am in a daze.
I ring again and leave a brief message: “ Bad news, please ring back.” I have come over to Altnagelvin on my own. I was not expecting this. When I get the call back, I share this news. We are both shakey, emotional. We agree to meet in the Guildhall Café.
My journey back across the bridge is a blur. Walking down to the Guildhall Café, I ring and tell my brother Brian.
Monday March 31st
My sister Claire and good friends James and Jill join with me on the morning of the operation. I am the last on the list. I had not fancied being sat all alone throughout the morning, waiting. We chat and collogue and read Angel cards. My random picks are the Angels of Adventure and the Angel of Trust. I welcome the Angel of Adventure, suitcase packed setting off bravely down the road towards the unknown. The Angel of Trust invites me to put my trust in Mister Mulholland to do his work..
The minutes and hours pass slowly enough. Its nearly 2pm when a chirpy nurse- maybe she’s a doctor- arrives at the door of my single room. “Right Mister Baker, we are ready for you now” As my bed is being pushed among the corridor and “the nerves” have taken hold, another oncology nurse specialist cheerfully breaks the silence: “ Has that man got all his false teeth out?” I burst into loud laughter.
This is my hero’s journey. No-one else can do this for me.
Once in the ante-room to the operating theatre, the anaesthetist invites me to think of my best ever holiday as he brings his anaesthetic up to my face…. It is seven o’clock (I learn later) when I come to in the “recovery room” asking…………… : “Is it over?”
It’s over. My right kidney is gone. I have three wounds. I can hardly feel them. The combination of morphine and the tremendous relief to have got through the operation have me smiling and upbeat as family members and friends gather around me for a short time after I am wheeled back to my room.
Tuesday April 1st
Early the next morning the surgeon is on his rounds with an attendant circle of doctors and nurses. He tells me the operation has gone fine. He tells the doctors to keep me fasting, keep me on intra-venous pain relief and to “mobilise” me today. He must be joking. It’s an April Fool- That afternoon the physio has me out of bed and with sensitive support has me gingerly walking the corridor, catheter and all. Up and down once. Then : “Could you manage that again?” -I remember those days running with Foyle Valley.the determination required in training, running up that Buncrana Road from Bridgend after doing Big Inch on a Saturday morning ahead of the London Marathon.- “I could try.”
That Tuesday my eighty-eight year old mother comes to visit-she could teach me a thing or two about surviving- my sisters Bernadette, Anne and Maire, my brothers Brian and Ciaran, my son James and daughter Grainne come too and friends and colleagues. There is a welcome stream of visitors. Sometimes the craic is so funny and yet it is painful to laugh. That almost makes the craic even funnier. Everybody is kind and generous. The nurses and doctors too are supportive. I am grateful for it all.
The uro- oncology nurse specialist from March 13th tells me that people talk of the “post-operation blues” the second day after the operation. Both morphine and the relief adrenalin are fading. The surgeon on his morning round cannot tell me yet whether the operation has been “successful“. Success= cancer removed. I have wet myself. I stink and feel as weak as water. I cannot articulate this equation. I know what I am desperate to know. Two nursing assistants prop me up while I wash myself down. This is the lowest I have felt. I am moving with great difficulty. Struggling mentally. The nurse specialist’s words have given me some kind of explanation for my “blues“. That explanation gives me some comfort.
That Wednesday evening some Foyle Valley runners come to visit, Liam, Pat, Louis and Brian all in great shape, training well for the Walled City Marathon. They walk with me up and down the corridor. Slowly. Slowly. Brian steadies me. After running all those marathon miles, the length of this corridor is the most I can do, at this moment.
On Thursday afternoon Mister Mulholland comes with three bits of good news: He has the provisional results from the operation and the biopsy of the tumour. He tells me that in removing my kidney, he has successfully removed the cancer. That the cancer was Grade 2. That I won’t need chemotherapy. While I perk up at this news, I notice I am not ecstatic. I may need to develop more positivity, more gratitude. He tells me also that he thinks I could be released the following day. I am not sure whether to be glad or annoyed about that. Am I fit enough to get out? And who will look after me then?
That Friday afternoon my brothers Brian and Desmond come to fetch me. The nurse gives me a letter for the treatment room in Great James St and a letter for my GP. She also gives me a box of Paracetamol for pain relief. There are no instructions, no manual of “do’s” and “don’t’s”. There is mention of counselling and of a support group. I declare my interest. Whatever helps my full recovery, I am interested.
Since Thursday morning I had been in a shared room. I leave strawberries for my fellow-patients. Brian takes a traffic bump too quick and I growl. But I am glad to be home and, soon after my arrival, people start to visit including again my daughter Grainne and my son James and my colleagues Maureen and Richie. My other son Ciaran is living in England and is not able to get home though much in touch by phone and text and email. Desmond stays overnight as my carer. In the days to come, we will laugh about his taking on this unlikely role. But I am glad of him.
April 5th til May 31st
My good friend Andy arrives from Cambridgeshire on the Saturday morning for a few days, fetched to Creggan by James and Jill. He tells my mother that he thought I always wanted an “English butler”
There are so many kindnesses shown to me. Cards, texts, calls, visits, gifts, dinners. From partner, family, friends, colleagues, neighbours. Which I so appreciate. One text meant to encourage my never-say-die spirit read “ Remember the two most beautiful words in the English language : ‘No surrender!’ I love the wild silence of the Celtic Prayer Garden. My mother gifts me an enormous packet of Flavahan’s porridge oats and a portion of her home baked scone. And so now its all about recovery . Again the mantra remains “Stay positive, think positive. Eat healthy. Juice . Wheatgrass . Exercise. Walk .. a little at first, then gradually build it up. Only go back to work when you are ready. Don’t go back too early. Take up the offer of Cancer Focus counselling sessions….”
And there are unexpected times when I burst into tears. Like on a visit to reiki healer, Rose Gallacher just a week after my operation, or when I meet Elizabeth and Dickie at St Augustine’s Church up on the Walls. “Tears are Nature’s Valium” Roy Arbuckle reminds me.