I dropped my paperwork into the clear acrylic bin beside the door to the lab. I moved to take a seat, but when I saw a shaking bald man approaching, I perched on the window ledge hoping he’d take the last available chair. The otherwise smooth skin of his head was divided by a long puckered scar that curled high above his right ear and down to the base of his skull. His face and head were covered in radiation burns, yet he still smiled as I motioned towards the available seat. I tried desperately to push the image of Humpty Dumpty out of my mind.
I watched the parade of patients move in and out of the lab while I waited to have my blood drawn. A familiar face smiled my way as he passed and I struggled to place my memory of him. From my vantage point, I could see into the room, watch him pull off his Stand Up To Cancer sweatshirt and take his seat in the blue plastic chair. As he pushed up his sleeve and laid his arm on the padded surface, palm up to expose his veins, I heard him recite his name – Ethan Zohn. My breath caught.
I’d followed his fight with Hodgkin lymphoma closely, watched his vlogs, read his tweets. When he found out he was going to lose his hair, he got a mohawk, too. There was something about his particular battle that resonated with me, from the tips of my recently sprouted hair to the chemo lines on my toenails.
As he walked out of the lab, pulling his sleeve down over his bandage, I opened my mouth and stood up slightly. He saw me and plopped down in the seat next to me, smiling.
“Thank you,” were the first words I was able to speak. He looked at me quizzically. I swallowed and continued, “I know this is the last place you want to be bothered, but I had to say thank you…for doing it all publicly. You terrified me and comforted me, made me grateful and hopeful all at once. So thank you.”
His smile widened as he extended his hand. “I’m Ethan.”
“I know,” I replied without thinking while reflexively shaking his warm hand. He looked at me, waiting. “Oh. Duh. Sorry. I’m Elly.”
“And you’re here today to…”
Now it was my turn to smile, though only tentatively. “I just had a scan and I’m hoping to find out that I’ve just hit two years in remission.” I held both my hands up with their fingers crossed. “You?”
“Vaccines. I’m like a newborn baby now.”
“Huh. I’d never thought about it, but I suppose it makes perfect sense.” I looked at my hands then back at him. “Wait, don’t you spend a lot of time in Africa with your soccer thing?”
“Yeah. That’s been a bit of a concern. They also really don’t want me to get polio. Did you…”
“No. I was non-Hodgkin. No stem-cell transplant for me.”
We both sat silent for a moment as Humpty Dumpty rose from his seat and moved slowly towards the lab.
“I’m glad I did it though,” he said with a defiant nod of his head, his black curls bouncing with the movement. I looked at him, confused. “That I did it publicly,” he clarified.
“Oh,” I smiled. “I was gonna say, I can’t imagine the stem-cell transplant is the kind of thing where you have a whole lot of choice.”
“No. But I’m glad I did that, too.” His kind face broke into another wide smile just as the technician called my name.