*Editor’s note: This column is a continuation of last week’s column, Chemo with a Side of Ice, Part 1
The night before my first chemo session, my husband layered dry ice with rented gel caps into four coolers. He’d read about a way for cancer patients to save their hair.
“You put frozen caps on your head during chemo,” he told me. “Since your scalp is frozen, meds can’t circulate there, and you won’t lose your hair.” It sounded brutal, but I agreed to try it.
He loaded the coolers into our car and tumbled into bed well after midnight. In the morning, both of us anxious, I got ready to leave, and Gary retrieved our car.
What we didn’t know was that while we slept, those coolers filled our car with deadly fumes. Dry ice is essentially a block of frozen carbon dioxide with a surface temperature of minus 109 Fahrenheit, and it emits gas as it melts, creating a lack of oxygen in confined spaces. It can be deadly.
People from wine country might be more aware of this phenomenon than others. Tragic stories sometimes emerge. A vintner in British Columbia fell into a 500-gallon vat and quickly lost consciousness because of high levels of carbon dioxide. When his friend tried to pull him out, he exposed himself to the same oxygen-starved environment, and both men died. Fast.
But we weren’t thinking of that. We were thinking of cancer.
Gary got into the car, slammed the door, and instantly sensed danger. He gasped for breath but nothing was there. Throwing the door open, he heaved himself onto the curb just before he passed out. By the time I arrived, he was sitting on that curb, gray-faced and woozy, the car door open wide.
“Fumes,” he muttered, his eyes glassy, “from the dry ice. I forgot.”
Eventually, the story unfolded. “I couldn’t breathe,” Gary panted. “It was like outer space.” Despite the temperature, sweat pooled on his skin. We drove to the hospital with windows down and the hatchback open, bungee cords holding our coolers in place.
That’s where this story should end, but it doesn’t. While I got prepped for chemo, Gary continued to feel short of breath. Nurses checked my oxygen and then his. It was a little low but no cause for alarm.
Finally, we had to go upstairs for chemo. “Whacha got in those coolers?” somebody asked on our way down the hall. “A liver?” Gary and I cracked up.
“A liver and six-pack,” Gary quipped. We were getting back to our old selves. But at the elevators, he panicked again.
“I’ll go up first,” I said. “Then you can send up the coolers. I’ll unload them, and you can meet me in the chemo room. That way neither of us will get caught in a death trap.” Gary’s been stuck in elevators twice, and didn’t want to get stuck again with those coolers. He sent them up and took the stairs.
In the infusion room, I wrapped myself in blankets while Gary opened a cooler. Mist billowed like a scene from “Thriller.” Even with his mask on, Gary felt fumes. “Can’t breathe,” he mumbled.
With gloved hands, he crammed a cap on my head, set the timer and logged the time.
Half an hour later, we ripped that first cap off and slammed another one on fast so my head wouldn’t warm up. To keep my scalp at negative 40 degrees, we swapped caps every 20 minutes. And each time, Gary got another whiff of fumes.
When we got home and his symptoms had failed to abate, we saw a doctor. And another and another. “It’s in your head,” they said. One gave him anxiety meds and sent him to a therapist.
He thought he was having heart attacks and wouldn’t leave the house without his cellphone. He was afraid to be alone because he thought he was going to die. All the while, he continued caring for me, scheduling appointments, checking meds, and fighting an unforgiving insurance industry.
Kit Jones, our gifted therapist, posited that the life-threatening moment caused by the dry ice mimicked my life-threatening cancer. “You were blindsided by it,” he told Gary, “just as you were blindsided by Nancy’s diagnosis.” That moment created something of a panic disorder for Gary. “It was fight or flight,” Kit said, “and Nancy’s cancer is triggering replays.”
A week later, Gary’s stomach swelled. “It’s the brain-gut connection,” a gastroenterologist suggested. Gary tested positive for the stomach bacteria H. pylori and SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), conditions which make their victims miserable. He lost 20 pounds, but bulged like a kid with malnutrition.
When my hair fell out despite our efforts, it was almost a relief. For both of us. At least the dry ice trigger would be out of our lives.
We sent those expensive caps back for the next chemo girl, who I hope has better luck. Gary started breathing clean air and seeing an acupuncturist.
It’s been nearly three years, and his anxiety level is normal again. Unfortunately, he chugs apple cider vinegar, eats sauerkraut like it’s Octoberfest, and orders pricey honey from New Zealand. His poor bloated belly is a mess. Maybe when my cancer risk is gone, he’ll be all better, too.
In the meantime, we’ll keep fighting.
And I’ll continue thanking God for a husband who shows me, profoundly and consistently, the definition of love. In return, he gets starry eyes from a wife who, against all odds, found the love of her life one fateful day on a Delta airplane.
But that’s another story for another day, a romance whose happy ending has yet to come.
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