August 29, 2022
Some elements of reality, of everyday life, flow together with grace. True love and picnics, for example. Others, like anniversaries and PET scans, confront each other in strange, unnerving ways. Friday was our anniversary, 44 years, Thursday was my PET scan.
PET stands for positron emission tomography. A simple explanation is that it detects energy use in tissue, which can reveal cancer and other problems. A PET scan usually follows a CT, or computed tomography scan.
The hospital waiting room was deserted when I arrived around 4 PM. I looked out the big plate-glass front window at the flowing traffic. A guy in scrubs, the PET technician, approached from the end of a long corridor.
“Mr. Walsh? I’m Kelly,” he said. He pointed down the hall. “We go this way. How long since you’ve had anything to eat?” he asked. “You’re not diabetic, are you?” I shook my head.
We exited a back door and climbed into a trailer. I took a seat in a closet-sized space. Kelly checked my blood sugar, then inserted the IV. I sat still for 45 minutes, then walked to the next room and slid onto the platform. In twenty minutes I was on my way to the parking lot.
We looked at doing something special for the anniversary and checked out the resort town of Helen, Ga., the so-called “Bavarian village” of Georgia. Instead we got a hotel room downtown.
Last year we were determined to go somewhere for the big day. Sandy found a “camper cabin” at Lake Hartwell, about 50 miles from home, the only state park rental that didn’t require a three-night stay. It was a pretty lakeside spot, but on the austere side: a bed, an overhead light, an air conditioner. You used the community bathhouse a couple of hundred yards away. No fun in the middle of the night.
Six months later I was cruising after three good CT scans each three months apart and three cheerful followups with the oncologist. The doc, a deep-Deep Southerner, consistently pulls off a sharp plaid shirt/solid tie ensemble, while our other medics turn out in sport shirts and running shoes. His quick, lighthearted wit made the appointments almost enjoyable. After the third good scan, in February, he let me skate for six months.
On Monday, at the Cancer Institute, he was all business. We met in a tiny treatment room, the usual place. He turned the computer monitor toward me and opened my last week’s CT scan. He pointed at a couple of gray shadows, “We have to look at these,” he said. “They might be nothing. I’m ordering a PET. That will tell us whether we need to biopsy.”
I had never thought of “biopsy” as a verb. He brought up my scan of last February, so long ago, and waved at the image. “Look here.” I looked. No shadow.
Friday, the anniversary, we headed downtown. Greenville has built a nice tourist business, with chic eateries and nightspots, a concert hall, a zoo, a gorgeous children’s museum, a beautiful ballpark, Fluor Field, which hosts a Red Sox farm club.
There’s Falls Park, which intersects Main Street along the less-than-mighty Reedy River, a pretty picnic and picture-taking spot. The locally famous 20-mile-long Swamp Rabbit Trail attracts runners, cyclists, strollers, dog-walkers. The trail passes through brand-new Unity Park, a lovely stretch of greenery that celebrates the long overdue reconciliation of whites and African Americans in a city and state once known for ironclad segregation, Jim Crow, and the Klan.
Our daughter Marie took charge of the anniversary, selecting the restaurant and making the reservation. We checked in and walked Main Street, gawking at the spectacle of the city. I leaned over the Main Street bridge to look at the river churning through the park. The evening crowd was out, heading for happy hour in cheerful Southern getups, sundresses, cutoff jean shorts, and bare shoulders for the girls, Clemson and USC tees and Bermudas for the guys. They weren’t all twenty- and thirty-somethings, I spotted some of our fellow geriatrics trying to have fun.
We worked our way into the weekend, taking stock. We’re holed up in this mid-size Deep South town, near the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge, a ten-minute drive from our grandkids and a lifetime away from northern Virginia’s snarling, traffic-choked subdivision sprawl. Also ten minutes from the nearest hospital, with its arsenal of state-of-the-art CT, MRI, and PET scanning equipment. I know the doctors, the admin people, the staff nurses, the scan techs.
We went for a walk after dinner, enjoying a mild evening with just a touch of summer mugginess, pleasant after the chilly restaurant. Billowing clouds had gathered, promising a storm, but it was comfortable. We explored some corners of the neighborhood we hadn’t seen before, which is most of it. The restaurants and bars all were packed, it was Greenville’s “Restaurant Week,” when you can get a great three-course meal for less money than usual, which these days still seems like a lot to me. We don’t get out much.
The PET report came in late that night with more detail than the CT, but really the same story. The dense medical language says something is going on in there. Most likely, if the doc wants a PET scan, something is going on. The report recommended an MRI “for further evaluation.”
The hotel had given us a 7th floor corner room, large and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a bit disorienting if you stood close and looked down. We could gaze across the city, past the apartments, hotels, and office and industrial buildings that passes for a skyline.
Beyond all that were the hazy pale-blue mountains that trail down from North Carolina and run west to the big lakes, Keowee and Jocassee, and then to rugged, forested north Georgia.
We slept well, enjoyed breakfast, and walked through the popular downtown farmer’s market, where vendors sell gourmet coffee and chocolate, pasta, granola, something called kuka juice; also some farm products. We talked about the future. Another anniversary, another year.