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Embedded at the Mayo Clinic


Your correspondent is no longer based in the Middle East. I am instead reporting from the ICU floor at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where my dad is battling cancer.

This is my sixth day here and it's been a constant state of siege. Basically, we're battling to keep my dad stable enough in order to undergo the daily radiation that could prolong his life. Every hour, it seems, we confront a new and significant hurdle to that plan.

In our tiny room, my mom, sister, and I take shifts staying up all night, holding his hand, skipping meals, trying to cater to his every need. He can't talk anymore, so we talk for him, charming the nurses into giving him his pain meds on time and to treat him like man, not meat. We listen carefully and take notes and ask tough questions, and when a doctor appears to discuss some new terror, we remain calm.

But it is impossible not to become emotional: A doctor reports that a scan of his brain is negative, and we soar. A surgeon tells us that replacing his trachea tube -- an urgent operation -- might kill him, and we slip into sobbing horror.

The highs are very high and the lows are very low.

Yet we feel like we're doing everything we can. (We pray we're doing everything we can.) And having been here a few days, I am convinced that Mayo is doing everything it can. It is important to believe in the army of doctors and nurses working together. Lose faith in them and you replace hope with hatred and anger.

But no matter how good the doctors are, medicine as a whole does not care how cruel it is, and medicine does not listen when we complain. Despite all our best efforts to understand, to anticipate the cancer's next move, medicine always changes course and it does not always make sense. Resoundingly, it is not fair. And of acute pain to me, medicine resists my natural inclination to see a narrative.

I know how I want this story to end, of course. But, agonizingly, it doesn't matter how much I yearn, how hard any of us work. (Except, presumably, the doctors.) For the first time in my life, I am in over my head and I can not bullshit my way out of this.

I think about my own role in this drama and I realize: It doesn't matter how good and right it feels when things are going well and how wrong and awful it feels when things are not going well. Things go wrong, and there's this leaden, brutal buzz and I take a poison breath and feel the narrative slipping, I feel the plot unraveling, I feel defeat. In those dark moments, I go numb and the power is out and I feel helpless and I feel lost and I think we are finished.

But we are not finished. This is life. This is real. I may not be in control. But it is still our story. And with my family's permission, I have begun writing. We will win. Stay tuned.