How many New Zealanders are receiving chemotherapy this week for cancer and other conditions? The number must be in the thousands. Yet this common medical intervention can never be a commonplace experience, evoking as it does such wildly fluctuating levels of both hope and anxiety.
Poet Elizabeth Brooke-Carr writes of receiving her first round:
The vein whisperer
It could be an arena for training or taming
wild emotions, this large light-filled ward
on the second floor, across which she comes
confident in her approach, stepping up
to my side, calm under the skittish flicker
of my anxiety. I let her place my arm gently
on a warm cotton pad plugged into a current
of electricity charging between us.
Alert to my disquiet she trusts me not to lunge
into a panic and turns aside, a moment later
re-turns, smiling, to swab along my forearm.
A brisk rub reveals a delicate blue pattern,
lines barely discernible beneath the skin.
Her ministrations are sure, tender. Leaning in
she purls softly as to some timid animal
quaking at the human touch, lowers her hand
feather-light, fingers slow-stroke, firm, firmer,
stop to tap one blue strand until it stands out
from the others. Off guard, I blink. She’s quick,
slides the needle in, deft as a light rein drawn
across a cowering back. I have the feel of it,
without the fear, a smooth glide over the girth
of equilibrium. She smiles, again, draws up
the plunger. There’s blood between us now.
Yet no dissent. In this flow of growing
confidence she links the shunt to a long line,
pats the bulging saline bag as if it were
a saddle. I’m all hitched up, ready to set out
on my first round, newly broken in, twitchy
in this field of weathered leather La-z-boys
tethered at the rim. She leads me through
my paces gently, in this sober treatment room.
Elizabeth Brooke-Carr is a writer and poet who lives just above the Green Belt in Dunedin, New Zealand. She has a PhD from the University of Otago.
Read also: Elizabeth Brooke-Carr’s essay for Corpus, Birdbath in Ward 6C