Dating, illness and the survival instinct (part 17)

He’d cared for me before diagnosis, pulling me out of snow banks when I fell. Later, he rode the prednisone rollercoaster with me, as my spirits sunk then soared and I dealt with a swollen face and ripped skin, immunosuppression and insomnia.

During the three years we’d worked in different cities, we saw each other every few months and vacationed together. He’d take my woeful phone calls, reminding me, “You can do it.”

When he was posted to Toronto, we decided to move in together, without much thought.

In marriages involving chronic illness, divorce rates are said to be more than 75 per cent. A study I found in the Journal of Oncology reported that spouses are actually lonelier than their ill partners and have lower levels of well-being and marital satisfaction. When illness takes over, partners become patient and caregiver. Continue reading

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Journalism 201: Remember to bring your prednisone to prison (Part 16)

“Don’t forget to take their picture.”

As I’d find out, not the best advice for a reporter sent to sneak into a third-world prison.

I was heading to Trinidad to interview two imprisoned teenage drug mules who had attempted to smuggle three suitcases of marijuana back to Canada. Both 17, they’d been sentenced to eight years in an adult prison, filled with murderers on death row.

The Star wanted the boys’ story.

It hadn’t started out as my story. A new hire, a summer student heading to Columbia University’s journalism school in the fall, had been following the case and already called the prison warden asking to interview the boys. Although she had a hunger for foreign assignments and a passport filled with stamps, she was too green to go.

Instead, I was assigned to show up at the prison, say I was a cousin, get their story and a photo: proof of life for the front page. Continue reading

Heart burn (Part 15)

While dying of prostate cancer, New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard wrote about “the therapeutic value of style.”

In Intoxicated By My Illness, he observed: “It seems to me that every seriously ill person needs to develop a style for his illness. I think that only by insisting on your style can you keep from falling out of love with yourself as the illness attempts to diminish or disfigure you.”

I’ve long envied literary men who write boldly about their various afflictions, fatal and otherwise, knowing that their ability to do their job is never in doubt and they relish the protection that their reputations afford them.

This is not the case for shift workers, dishwashers, desk jockeys that fill boxes with numbers for a modest salary, or almost anyone else. And not for girl reporters trying to figure out how to work sick.

I am currently reading Working Bodies: Chronic Illness in the Canadian Workplace (McGill-Queens University Press, 2014). It is dedicated to “all Canadians living with chronic illness who want to have meaningful employment and engagement in the workplace.”

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How not to tell your new colleagues you’ve got a chronic illness (Part 14)

When the pain came, I carried it on my shoulders as I waded through the polluted, dirty water of Lake Ontario. When I made it to my desk in the Toronto Star newsroom, I  wrote the final words on Vicki Keith conquest.

“Five down. None to go.”

I followed her in a boat across Erie, Huron and Superior, Ontario (twice), and almost Michigan, and that’s the best lede I could come up with. But at least it was brief.

My knuckles were swollen, my fingers bunched into fists. They looked like boxer’s hands. I punched gingerly at the keys, wincing. It was like repeatedly hitting a block of cement.

I did not go to emergency, as I had when I was in third-year university. I calmly called my rheumatologist at Mount Sinai and asked for an appointment. His office manager did not see the same urgency that I did, and so she booked me the next available appointment, several months from then. Continue reading

Playing with boys (Part 13)

When I joined the Star’s downtown general assignment pool, all the reporters’ desks had been shoved into rows as they renovated the newsroom.

It reminded me of a Grade 8 class at an all-boys school.

Loud-talking guys in wrinkled dress shirts, loosened ties, sitting jowl-to-cheek, ego-to-ego, as they pounded out their stories on 1970s computers, in late stages of decay.

I was seated, temporarily, beside a bulldog of two-way man (meaning he both wrote and took photographs), who immediately showed me the collection of girlie photos he’d amassed on the job. He’d somehow convinced numerous women to pose for photos with their shirts off, and kept a file in his desk, mixed in with pictures of his children (clothed).

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The mantra, the mental spellcheck and a call to the show (Part 12)

A suburban monster, he overpowered her from behind, dragging her into the backyard of her parents’ Scarborough home. There, he strangled her with an electrical cord, while viciously raping her for almost an hour.

He left her tied to a fence with her own belt like a dog.

The details in the press release were spare, stark. The victim was 19. I wasn’t much older.

I quickly typed up the brief and filed it to the senior cop reporter based at One Yonge, Toronto Star headquarters.

Reporters are observers. That is our blessing and our curse. We know we can’t help, but we’re uncertain what or how to feel, as though it were a professional liability.

Still, as I typed, I trembled, my mind dancing from the victim to the imagined rapist to the long hand hopping past six. Deadlines were very hard for me then, whether I was writing about a brutal sexual assault or a motion on garbage pick up at Scarborough city hall, which by then was my part-time beat in the Star’s east bureau.

My daily prednisone dose, at 5 mg (down from 80 mg), was finally below the replacement level for the cortisol the adrenal glands typically produce. And it was unclear if my adrenals, sitting atop the kidneys, had started producing cortisol again. The longer you are on prednisone, the higher the dose, the harder it is for the adrenals to bounce back. Continue reading