Paula is dressed in black. In the evening cold the black hat, black pea coat, and black leather boots give contrast to her bright pink face. Her eyes, magnified through the thick lenses of her glasses are focused on her destination. I walk behind her on the brick sidewalk of Donner Pass Rd. She turns right onto Hospital Way and I follow. The sky is grey. Small, chunks of snow fall from it, stinging my face. A banner hangs above us welcoming patients to Tahoe Memorial Cancer Center. It is a thick, heavy canvas slightly swinging in the light wind. I think of cancer, and how welcoming a center like this can really be. Its medicines, powerful life suppressing chemotherapy drugs and the burning heat of radiation, literally destroy the body.
Sliding doors open and warm air rushes towards me. Beth is sitting behind the reception counter to my left. She smiles. Her white teeth and gentile approach help to warm me from the inside. Paula looks back, noticing the sticker on my black, plastic toolbox with a red handle. She giggles at the sticker, which reads “Get Poked”. She says it’s clever; I am an acupuncturist.
The hallway is wide and bright, not the sterile white of most hospitals. Red paint on the walls and a mosaic painting in front of me give the center color. I stare at the painting – pink tile, purple tile, blue tile, clear tile.
Miguel is to my left standing next to his small janitorial cart. On it are white towels, a large grey garbage can with blue plastic bags, and a silver broom with thick yellow bristles. Miguel is short, fat, and balding. He knows that I speak Italian – a novelty for both of us. He yells down the hallway, “Come stai Amico? How are you my friend?” I shout back, “Va Bene! I’m well”, give him a thumbs up–and then turn right down the next corridor.
I enter through two large wooden doors with the words “Infusion Room” over them. There is a warm, brilliant fireplace placed in the center of the room providing heat and light. It is surrounded in a semi-circle by nine stations each with its own chair. In some of the chairs are patients. Machines monitor the drugs that flow through ports in the patient’s chests or arms. The outer walls of the room are all glass and look out towards the mountains. Through them, I notice the pink and orange that is fighting against the grey as the sun begins to set.
I take my black “Get Poked” toolbox and place it on the fake marble countertop in an empty station. Veronica, one of the nurses, approaches dressed in blue scrubs. She has dark circles under her brown eyes and a thin smile on her face. “I will turn on the Meditation station on Pandora for you. These patients need to relax. We will keep it quiet. Are you busy tonight?” she asks.
“Yep, I’m booked solid; eight patients in two hours. It will go by quickly!”
Unpacking my gear, I lay out my tiny stainless steel needles still packaged in their airtight pouches. Next to them on the wheeled, waist high tray I set out sterile cotton balls, alcohol pads, and my bright red sharps container. I double-check my schedule as I prepare to turn the Infusion Room into the “Qi Center”. I take a quick look at the fireplace, the centerpiece.
Paula walks in to the room takes off her hat, boots, and jacket and stands at my station. She looks at me, giggles and announces to the room, “OK, I am ready to get poked.” Under Paula’s black jacket is a bright orange and blue sweater. Below, I see pink socks that match the color of her face. I notice that her radiation treatments are causing a substantial blister on her chest above her right breast.
After her intake, and with acupuncture needles in her extremities, she tells me that despite her condition, she likes coming here on cold, grey days because the Cancer Center is so “hopeful”.
“I am very lucky,” she says. “For me the Cancer Center is warmth. The Cancer Center is color. The Cancer Center is life.”