Noe Valley Voice November 2000

The Advantages of Extended Warranties or Life Goes On


I bought Jeff a 12-inch nonstick fry pan for our nine-year wedding anniversary. I don't remember what I got him for our first or eighth or any since or in-between, but I remember that one.

I was in the kitchenware department at Macy's Union Square on a Friday, noontime. I wandered around the pots and pans. A young male sales clerk rattled off the attributes of the various pans. It all had to do with warranties, how long they'd last. One had a lifetime warranty. I didn't know if I should laugh when I heard that one. Lifetime warranty, what the hell does that mean? I wanted to say. My husband has two years, he has cancer. I could picture myself years from now with this stupid fry pan and no Jeff.

I walked to BART with my fry pan, trying to keep the thoughts away, but they came out anyhow, in tears. At home I sat in our front parlor, on my grandmother's love seat in the bay window. I sat there crying, feeling useless and alone; the house was silent.

Katie woke up and I held her on my lap. She touched the tears on my face and said "Mommy?" I couldn't stop. It was a gorgeous Indian Summer day. I sat there for hours it seemed, holding Katie, and crying. Jeff came home and he cried too, and apologized, like it was somehow his fault.

I felt drugged when we went to see Dr. Norton, the head and neck surgeon. Jeff and I held hands in the elevator, but that felt strange too. I looked at the cancer posters up on the walls and the signs for support groups and tried to relate them to us, to Jeff and me.

Dr. Norton came in, followed closely by several interns. This was the first time I'd met the man. He looked at me, at my maternity dress. "When's the baby due?"

"February," Jeff answered. Then with a catch in his voice, "I'd like to be there."

"You will be," he gave Jeff a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.

We sat in an examining room and waited while our case was presented to the Tumor Board. Then the doctors filed in, several at a time, said hello, shook hands. Each group examined Jeff, felt his neck, looked up his nose. "Interesting," they'd say, or something equally vague. Then they'd make way for the next set. I felt so bad for Jeff. He wasn't a person to them. I didn't exist either. "I felt like I should be serving cocktails, appetizers on a tray or something, like we were having an open house in your nose," I told Jeff later.

The worst times were when I was alone and couldn't stop the thoughts -- like in the shower or while at home with Katie. I would think about Jeff dying and not just the awfulness of that moment, but about afterward. Would Katie even remember him? How much can I remember from when I was a child?

I thought about having to show pictures of Jeff to her and the new baby. I had our wedding video and another just taken at Katie's first birthday party, when Jeff and my niece Danielle were doing cartwheels, Jeff trying to do one while holding his beer in his hand. But our children could never really know him from a video.

The doctors didn't know where the cancer had originated, but they didn't think it was his sinuses. So they did endless tests to find out where else it was. They couldn't find it. Was that something to be relieved about? He was a medical mystery to them, a young white male dying of a cancer typically found in elderly men from southern Asia. They were so sure there was more cancer in there.

I pictured his insides as this huge area, dark and bloody with the cancer hiding out. Jeff had a full-body MRI, CAT scans, blood tests, needle biopsies of the glands in his neck. We had to wait for each event to be scheduled and for the results to be evaluated by the many doctors involved. We waited while they determined a treatment plan. We were anxious for something to happen.

Weeks after the diagnosis, they scheduled Jeff for radiation. It was a relief to finally be doing something. Jeff came home from the first radiation treatment with blue ink marks on his neck and throat, sloppily drawn circles. He told me they put pennies on his eyes so they could protect them. That they strapped his head to the table so he couldn't move. The pennies bothered me. I thought of old pirate stories and pennies on dead men's eyes.

One afternoon I came home to find Jeff already there. I thought he'd be having his treatment. He told me they had canceled the radiation. He cried, held me. "They think maybe that I don't have cancer. They think they might have made a mistake."

"What? I don't understand."

"The pathologist sent a letter. They think the samples could have been mixed up. They think I might not have cancer. They need another biopsy. They don't know." He was crying and shaking and I was numb. I felt nothing. We were back in limbo, waiting on another test.

They took the last biopsy on the following day. It was a Friday. We found out on Monday in the late afternoon that it had all been a mistake.

We met with Dr. Norton. He was in a hurry. He stood over us while we sat. "How could this happen?" I asked him. "I don't understand."

"Mrs. Helms, you just need to put this all behind you, just put it all behind you."

Put it all behind me, I thought later, as the bills arrived, a daily reminder. Put this behind me? You've put us all through hell, destroyed my peace of mind, given my husband radiation, and that's all you can say to me, put it all behind me? How?

We requested copies of medical records, including the letter from the pathologist indicating a possible mix-up. We were surprised to see that the letter was dated prior to the date Jeff began radiation. No one wanted to talk to us, except attorneys. So we got one of them to help us unravel what had happened.

The pathologist had written a letter when he discovered that there might have been a mix-up. This letter went to Dr. Tyler, who was Jeff's original doctor. Dr. Tyler drove out to Dr. Norton's office and left it on his desk. Dr. Norton was away at a convention in New Orleans. A week passed before the letter was uncovered.

It felt better knowing what had happened. But what I really wanted was for someone to say, "I'm sorry." No one did.

The lawsuit was a nightmare, as bad as the cancer diagnosis and worse in some ways. We didn't see the better side of human nature. No one would admit to making a mistake. We didn't do it -- they did, like children confronted with a broken window.

The suit dragged on. Stephanie was born, and it would soon be Christmas again, her second one. Depositions were scheduled, then canceled at the last minute. The hospital's attorneys wanted us to back down, and we did. With the lawsuit always hovering over us, we couldn't begin to recover. And we didn't feel right putting a price tag on the event. Eventually we realized the obvious: The suit wasn't helping. It couldn't help. We settled a few days before Christmas.

Was there any great lesson in this? Did we learn to love each other more? We loved each other plenty before. Has it made us appreciate life, be kinder to each other? I doubt it. Life doesn't work that way. There's no guaranteed "bright side."

It has changed us. The morning Katie started kindergarten, Jeff was close to tears. So was I. Not because "our baby was growing up," but because we were remembering a time when we truly believed Jeff would not live long enough to see that day.

Have I "put it all behind me"? No. I still think about meeting up with some of those doctors, of saying, "F-- you" to their face.

The fry pan has a big dent in one side now--Jeff slammed it into the counter after burning pancakes. I wonder if that would be covered in a lifetime warranty? 2

Eloice Helms and her husband have lived in Noe Valley since 1988.