My Darth Vader mask… (part two)

Back to the transplant… It takes three months to go through it and another three months to recuperate from it. It’s really rather grueling. They overdose you with chemo, collect your stem cells and freeze them. Then they chemo you up some more and eventually put the cells back in your bloodstream, hoping they’ll start a whole new colony of healthy cells. It’s not the stem cell part that’s so difficult, but the different cocktails of chemo that really kick your butt. Since you’ve probably seen a friend or family member afflicted in such a way and have no desire to be reminded of it, I won’t go into detail. But I would like to tell you this one part of the process. Don’t worry; it’s not gross.

During a transplant they pretty much destroy your immune system. A runny nose can turn into pneumonia, and you’re in the hospital fighting for your life. Until I regained my ability to fight infection, a germless bubble became my habitat for three or four months. They put me on a low microbial diet, all my water had to be boiled, and the list of what I couldn’t eat was extensive, which seemed kind of moot since I had no appetite anyway.

Another precaution they require is what I call, “The Darth Vader Mask.” I had to wear it any time I was outside the house, even in the car. It’s nothing like the small surgical masks doctors wear during surgery or the dust-resistant ones you can buy at the drug store. This one is heavy, cumbersome, uncomfortable, menacing, and straight out of Star Wars. (Maybe if they provided a Light Saber to go with it…) It looks more like the gas masks you see soldiers or firemen wear in the movies. Dawning it into 7-11 at night would definitely be a bad idea, unnecessarily freaking out the clerk, prompting a frantic call to the cops.

For a talker like me, the worst part of the mask is the inconvenient limitation it puts on speaking with others. Inhaling is painstaking through the filter and exhaling fills the mask with whatever odor your breath is at the moment. In order to speak you have to take deep breaths before each sentence and yell out the words in order to be heard, and your voice sounds eerily similar to the guy we all learned to hate, the man in all black himself – Mr. Vader. The only way I knew how to prepare my friends for seeing and hearing me in the mask for the first time was to deliver the line:  “Luuuuuuuke. The force be with you!” I improved with each delivery.

So, if the breathing/speech issue was the most annoying complication with the mask, a close second was its color. They mass produce these things and use them not only for cancer patients, but for protection from toxic inhalants and dangerous airborne threats, and of all the colors in the spectrum they could’ve selected for the filters protruding on each side of the mask, they chose hot pink!

I don’t want you to think I’m macho or insecure about my masculinity. But, seriously, pink? It’s not like people can’t already see you coming with the Star-Wars-meets-HAZMAT headgear. They had to make it pink in case you didn’t already feel like everyone who saw you was whispering to everyone else about you.

“I wonder what’s wrong with that guy that he has to wear that mask.”

“We should keep our distance; he’s probably contagious.”

“Yeah, and why is it pink? Do you think he chose that color?”

You’re sick, can’t explain it to people without sounding ghoulish, and the mask is Easter Bunny pink. Is this the definition of “adding insult to injury” or what?

I know that your pity for me has now increased exponentially. I want to allay your concern and tell you some good news. Through incessant whining about the color, a nurse told me about some sweet saint of a lady who was sewing alternative slipcovers for those pink filters. One of this century’s most significant philanthropic contributions, out of great compassion for those of us allergic to pink, she created an assortment of colors and prints for the fashion conscious among us. (If you know me, feel free to chuckle as you think about the words “fashion conscious” and me being cited in the same sentence.) And though I’m not at all a camouflage kind of guy, it came much closer to representing my personality than the alternative. The covers made it even harder to breathe and speak. Small price to pay.

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