Tag Archives: black and white

The Strangers I’ve Known

  
I met “Gypsy” at a rest stop at the top of a mountain pass. He was wearing a woman’s dress and had a scarf wrapped around his head. He sat barefoot on a bench with a bottle of Windex and a rag politely asking people who passed by if he could clean their car windows for a small donation. “Gypsy” said he has lived in his car for several years because he prefers to travel and be free from the expectations of a society he “doesn’t fit into.” ©Tracy J Thomas, 2015. All rights reserved.

I think often about the strangers I have met. They come to me in different places on their journey; the young, the old, the worn, and the tired. They each have a story to tell, written in the pain along the edges of their faces and the in shadows that have settled in their eyes.

Nikolei, Jamie & Spike in Old Sacramento, CA, 2010. This photo is from the first time I met Nikolei and Jamie. Nikolei, 20, was laid off from his job at FedEx and began living on the streets after he could not find another job and could no longer pay rent. He had been homeless for 6 months. Jamie, 16, was kicked out of her parent’s house 2 months prior and felt safe hanging out with Nikolei and Spike. She sold her skateboard the week before so they would have some money for food. The two had plans to make their way up to Washington where Nikolei hoped to find work. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

There is something that draws me to them. Some distant feeling of recognition. I understand their pain, their sorrows, their fears. A piece of me wants to ignore them and move on with my day in search of beauty. While a part of me feels drawn to stop and talk to them, it is at the risk of revisiting those dark memories hidden away so conveniently inside my mind.

They are a reflection of all that can go wrong with this life, with the mind, the heart, the body, and soul. Lost in the shuffle of humanity and caught in a downward cycle of demise, they exist on the other side of the thin veil between a successful life and some sordid alternate reality. The mirror they hold up forces us to look into ourselves and question our 

own choices and circumstance, and causes us to wonder why this world can be so incredibly cruel. So we divert our eyes, walk on by, and pretend they don’t exist. 

  I met Charles on K Street, Sacramento, CA, 2011. Charles grew up without either of his parents. Both of them were incarcerated from the time he was a baby so he was raised by an aunt and uncle who abused and neglected him. In his early twenties he got married, had two children and began using drugs and alcohol heavily. He divorced and ended up homeless on the streets. Charles now suffers from chronic liver disease including Hep C and cirrhosis of the liver. His abdomen was swollen and painful and he had recently filled out the paperwork to receive medical assistance. He chooses to sleep in the woods. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

Are they there because of the choices they make? Or have their lives been dismantled by ugly circumstances beyond their control, by the terrifying things we cannot see? Who are we to judge them? Really. We are all human beings. That is our common ground from the beginning. 

I am always surprised when I take the risk and reach out to talk with those strangers who cross my path. Some of their stories are harrowing, some extremely sad. While others admit to choices that have lead them to where they sit, others are like free spirits who choose to remain there, like gypsies, unbound by societal demands. Some are clearly in need of help for both physical and mental ailments but lack the resources and the ability to seek it on their own. 

 I met Christina and Ears on Market Street, San Francisco, CA, 2010. Christina had been homeless off and on for five years. She suffered from bipolar disorder and at one point suffered from Neutropenia related to the psychotropic medication they gave her in the hospital. She turned to self medicating with heroin when she ended up on the streets. Christina was passionate about rats and bred and raised them to sell the babies to pet stores. She was receiving Methadone treatment for her addiction to heroin at the time I met her. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

Some have been well educated with degrees and plenty of job experience. I have met teachers, artists, musicians, and even a former attorney. Each one had a different story surrounding the tipping point that lead them out onto the streets. Many have spent their lives running from the shadows of an ugly childhood, and like the many Veterans I meet, are struggling with the horrors of PTSD.

 I met Malcolm on L Street in Sacramento, CA, in 2010. Malcolm had been homeless for four years. He had to leave home when he was 18 and when he couldn’t find a job to pay rent, he decided to hop freight trains and see the country. He had visited 48 states and was on his way down to Florida with his two dogs and his girlfriend. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Of Frozen Peas and Prize Fights

Frozen peas are my friend.

Frozen peas are my friend.

Today I look like a prize-fighter. Fortunately my opponent looks far worse than I do at this moment in time. Yesterday’s surgeries went well. After a six-hour day of needles, scalpels, bandages, blood and stitches, I can now say I am cancer free. So this week I am focused on healing. Bags of frozen peas have become my best friend for reducing the swelling and controlling the bruising. Once I am fully healed I will move on to the topical chemo in a few months to eradicate any hidden gremlins that might be lurking in the shadows.

The scene of my Mohs surgery.

The scene of my Mohs surgery.

Thank you all for the kind words, prayers and positive thoughts you’ve sent me while I travel down this inconvenient but hopefully short side road along this occasionally convoluted journey we call “life.”

The reconstruction surgeon, Dr. J., who made me all pretty again.

The reconstruction surgeon, Dr. J., who made me all pretty again.


And So It Begins…

Surgical Lights. ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Surgical Lights. ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

So yesterday was surgery #1 for the cancer on my back. After a long discussion with my doctor I chose one of three removal options. The options were by excision, through Immunotherapy drugs, or by Curettage and Electrodessication.

Since it is a larger basal cell, with an excision he would have had to cut about ten inches in length and go pretty deep for clear margins plus I would have quite a few stitches to contend with and the pain that accompanies it. The second option was Immunotherapy via Imiquimod used to treat advanced basal cell carcinomas. The drug uses your own body’s immune system to kill off the tumor but the regimen would require daily topical application for six straight weeks with pain and discomfort accompanied by flu-like symptoms. The third (which I chose) was the Curettage and Electrodessication method. It would not require a large incision or stitches nor the yucky chemo side effects. He used a sharp curette (a spoon-shaped instrument) to scrape and scoop the tumor out then used a machine with an electric current to burn away any excess cancer cells surrounding the tumor spot. So now I have a semi-deep, open spot on my back that simply requires cleaning, application of ointment and bandaging for the next several weeks. It stung quite a bit after the local wore off but I slept well last night after taking an Extra Strength Tylenol and today I only feel it a tiny bit along with a headache.

The surgery room. ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

The surgery room. ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Although it does not have as high of a success rate as the Imiquimod, I decided the C&E method would be the best choice since I will have to also deal with the healing process, discomfort, etc. of the upcoming surgeries on my face which will be more involved and require stitches.

My lollipop following surgery.

My lollipop following surgery.

I also had another pre-cancer (Actinic Keratosis #20) frozen off my forehead right before the surgery. We discussed moving my topical chemo regimen forward to the end of October following my Mohs instead of waiting any longer since I have so many “spots” of concern on my face. So I have five weeks of possible Hell to look forward to after all this surgery. The level of that particular Hell will depend on how many sub-dermal spots turn up when I use the Fluorouracil. Common side effects of this topical chemotherapy may include: skin irritation, burning, redness, dryness, pain, swelling, tenderness, or changes in skin color at the site of application. Eye irritation (e.g., stinging, watering), trouble sleeping, irritability, temporary hair loss, or abnormal taste in the mouth may also occur. Oh goody!

Paraphernalia to make the owie all better.

Paraphernalia to make the owie all better.

So the lesson in this is WEAR YOUR SUNSCREEN and those big, sexy hats. It’s not “just skin cancer” that can be cut away and forgotten about. It is real, it costs time and money, and it wreaks havoc on one’s psyche.

That is all for now…


The Better To See You With…

ophthalmologists Phoropter - ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Opthalmologists Phoropter – ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Last week I had my appointment with the Ophthalmologist who will be my Oculoplastics surgeon directly following the Mohs surgery. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I came to his office for the pre-op consult and examination. He examined my eyes closely with a numbing yellow dye and a split scope then took a ton of measurements of my face from my eye up to my hairline, from my eyelid to the area of the lesion, and across the bridge of my nose. He then took a lot of photographs of my face, especially of the area where the cancer lives.

Split Scope - ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Split Scope – ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Dr. J as I will refer to him explained the difficulty of the surgery based on the proximity to the eye. He told me when cancer is found on the midline of the face it is considered high-risk. The face is made up of different types of skin cells so grafting to the area where my cancer grows with skin from somewhere else on my face (i.e. behind my ear) would not do very well. Instead he will be pulling a skin flap over the open region with adjoining healthy skin. This may mean skin pulled over from my top eyelid, bottom eyelid, or down from the bridge of my nose or forehead to the area of the medial canthus. Part of the difficulty of reconstruction for this area is the fact it is a concave pocket and skin likes to grow in a straight line from point A to B especially when they use a graft from another area of the body. However skin cells used from adjacent areas can more easily conform to the natural concave shape of the area.

Anatomy of the eye - ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

Anatomy of the eye – ©Tracy J Thomas, 2014. All rights reserved.

We discussed the unknowns including the fact they won’t know how much skin will be removed until the actual day of the Mohs surgery. Therefore Dr. J does not know how much reconstruction will be required until I make it to him following the first surgery earlier in the day. Such is the nastiness of skin cancer. It likes to take root and grow just under the radar beneath the surface of the skin. The beauty of Mohs surgery is their ability to remove a layer, freeze it, look at it under a microscope to determine whether or not they got clear margins all in the same day. That way you don’t have to wait two days and come back for more surgery. They just keep cutting away until the margins are clear.

I can’t honestly say my anxiety was relieved by the pre-op appointment. There are still too many unknowns at this juncture. I did receive the date for my Mohs surgery and reconstruction the day after my pre-op so at least I now have a target date for which to mentally prepare. The cancer on my back will be removed first in a few weeks by my Dermatologist, most likely through excision. I will then have a month or so to heal before my face surgery occurs on September 8th. Relieved to have a date, however the intensity of it all gave me one big headache.

Me getting rid of my headache with my Spa Comforts lavender eye pillow.

Me getting rid of my headache with my Spa Comforts lavender eye pillow.

Dr. J gave me a handout with post-op care instructions before I left his office. There will be a period of time I most likely will not be able to wear my glasses due to inflammation, swelling and tenderness. This is not a great thing since I am pretty reliant on my glasses to read and see. They told me to expect redness, bruising, and swelling to not only my eye area but my face plus the possibility of bleeding into the white of my eyes for a period of 4-6 weeks. I will need to sleep with my head elevated (yay for brand new, über comfy La-Z-Boy recliners) and I won’t be able to do any heavy work, bending over, lifting or exercise. In other words I am going to be bored for a bit :-).

However boredom is the perfect trade-off for becoming (fingers crossed real tight) cancer free.