I listened in shock to a fiercely tearful voicemail from my sister. I could not recall hearing my sister cry, in all her 32 years. She said it looked like the end- she felt so strongly she even spilled out tearful remorse for being a “bad daughter.”
Slowly, my mind coupled this message with the concern that had been branching painfully through me since I had not been able to reach my mother all day.
I flashed back to two months earlier. I had been leaving work. My mother had called. We discussed numbers. Four centimeters. Four centimeters of unwanted mass that had decided to reside in her liver. Four centimeters that- just a week prior- had gone undetected. I remember the feeling at the moment she said the words. My mother was going to die. I had heard it in her voice. Such a sad, sad resignation, slightly tinged with fear. I had kept a cheerful tone, but when we hung up, I had to pull over to bawl uncontrollably. As I am struggling not to do while I write now.
So there I was in October, my seven-year-old trooper of a son in tow, on the 16th floor of a highly esteemed medical facility. Staring at my young, sixty-year-old mother, at a version of her rougher than I could have imagined. Her skin had a sickly yellowish hue, taut on her face while her mouth hung open in abandon. She looked, I thought later, like a strung-out heroin addict. Her wig was still on, but it looked completely out of place, completely obvious- nothing like how it had always looked on her- perfectly natural and beautiful, like her.
But then she woke up, saw me, and more importantly, my son, and smiled her usual beaming smile. Nothing was wrong, then, after all. The end is far, I told myself, cushioning myself with an “airbag of denial,” as it was named by the hospice nurse, just a few weeks later. I should have known better.
For the past two months that my mother and I had been speaking by phone, her demeanor had been quite different from that of the conversation about liver tumor size. She had started sounding very possible, hopeful, and on the mend. I realize now it was a façade to protect all of us, herself included.
Four and a half weeks later, she was gone.
Before she left, she had me make a promise to her. A promise that I would tell a part of this story that is disgraceful and outrageous. She expressly told me “not to let this one go” before she passed. And so, as promised, I am writing to expose a reprehensible irony.
My mother received her medical care from the Breast Oncology department of a world-renowned, US Best Honor Roll facility, based in New York City. My mother was so impressed and overwhelmed by the service and kindness in every department along the path of her recovery, she felt truly blessed and fortunate to have been able to utilize the best facility in the entire nation. In addition to being a patient of this organization, she had also been a veteran employee of over 38 years. 38 years.
Despite a period of remission, during which time she worked, my mother found herself revisiting Oncology in March 2012. Tirelessly, she continued her fight. Surgery was scheduled at the end of April that would require at least a week of recovery time. In response to her doctor’s notice of the needed leave, my mother’s manager stunned her with an ultimatum: return to work by May 1, a clearly unreasonable date to return to work, or be terminated. My mother’s doctor reiterated the circumstances and my mother underwent surgery as she needed. A few days after her surgery, she received a termination letter, shocking her, my sister, and me.
After almost forty decades of dedicated employment to a highly acclaimed medical institution, an institution with a self-proclaimed “heritage of greatness”, my mother paid the price for the superior medical care she received with the termination of her own position with this organization.
I am grateful, as my mother was, to the doctors, for her brief but vivacious year of remission. My mother, my son, and I had a fantastic year together that I will never forget.
However, now, I must keep a promise and expose the shameful disgrace of character and integrity in the incongruous nature of this facility. If I never understand why such a critically award-winning hospital allows such behavior and treatment of its own employees, at least I am exposing this outrage and indignation that took place.
In 2013, with an insane percentage of 1 in 8 American women developing breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, this type of discrimination still rages! In an age when celebrities are voluntarily, preemptively chopping off their breasts because the risk is so high, employers and coworkers still harass returning employees- to the point of termination. I found several articles, based on research done in the UK and US, from 1989 through today discussing this problem; in a span of almost 25 years, women still have to suffer employment discrimination because of breast cancer. Every article’s author also stated that existing amount of research is extremely poor.
Employment can be a critical component to long-term survival. And so, wonder will forever sit in the back of my mind whether or not one termination influenced the other. Strange how the tumor in the liver had appeared so suddenly- just a few months after her termination from employment. And my mother’s words, “don’t let this one go, Mary,” keep repeating in my ears, haunting me. So I write now because an esteemed medical facility should have known better than to allow this treatment of a 38 year employee, turned patient.
Thank you for reading and passing it forward. Sadly, this treatment happens all too often- including harassment by coworkers and management, which my mother also experienced. From sarcastic comments about her weight loss to asking bluntly if her hair was real, she suffered beyond what was conscionable.