I Am More: James

The first time we met James, or “Jim” we were at a family barbecue of friends, we had just moved to Gloucester, and each member of the group was sharing their two cents about life in Cape Ann. Then Jim began an eye-opening and hilarious, but loving, explanation of this unique place. It turns out that is the default state of his mind, finding the hilarity and beauty of a place or a situation. When he received an unexpected diagnosis last year, his updates on his condition evoked spit-takes rather than grimaces, as you will read below. In a very “Boston” tribute, he reminds us that we are all more, thanks to the nurses:

James, 2019. Pastel on paper, 16×20 inches

One of the many great benefits to living in the Greater Boston Area is access to best-in-the-world medical care. So when you have your first-ever grand mal seizure and wind up diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, for instance, there is typically no wondering if you’re getting highly acclaimed doctors.

When I was first diagnosed I looked up my oncologist to find he was more published than Stephen freaking King. He had actually helped write the protocols they use to treat my type of tumor. Even the techs running the radiation suite were heavy-duty nerds. One of them and I would talk about our mutual love for the somewhat obscure punk rock philosopher/college professor Greg Gaffin during the two or three minutes while she strapped me down to the table for my daily ration of high-energy photons, which seemed right on brand for the Massachusetts General Hospital Radiation Oncology Center.

But it turns out the people who would be the most central to my care were the ones I was, at first, most prone to dismiss.

Let’s call them “Barbaras.”

Allow me to explain: If you grew up in or near Boston, the nurses, the teachers and moms on your block were all women named “Barbara” or “Donna” or “Patricia” and they knew your name, your deal, and most importantly what you were trying to get away with. They offered no quarter and dished out a constant stream of low-level abuse with a hard-edged Mass accent of the classical style to everyone at all times. These women didn’t and don’t care, for instance, if you have a stage IV brain tumor if you needed to be down to Infusion in five minutes so things don’t start running behind schedule. They would get you there like Orcs driving Hobbits to Isengard, if necessary.  

My first week I’d developed a rash in reaction to sulfa drugs, so they took to calling me “Itchy Jimmy” (in hilariously flagrant disregard for HIPPA regs regarding patient confidentiality, by the way) as in: “Move it, Itchy Jimmy, we gotta get to MRI.…”

You learn fairly quickly it’s these folks, not the doctors on the tumor boards or the surgeons, who are literally what’s making everything happen. And here in 2019 their Irish Catholic edge has been joined by Central American and Caribbean and other mostly women from all over the world of no less determination to ensure your ass is where it needs to be so you can get your treatment. They’re the ones making sure the supplies and infusions and machines all wind up in the right places, so that the doctors coming up with this stuff are able to turn the bright ideas coming out of the research hospitals and labs into treatments that hopefully will make all the difference to some seriously ill people.

At one point, a few weeks into my treatment, I’m shuffling down the hall in a neurological fog from yet another course of radiation on my way to another chemo session and Nurse ‘Barbara’ was issuing me a Boston standard measurement “raft of crap” for moving too slowly. A doctor from not-Boston overheard and pulled me aside.

“Does she know you just had surgery? She’s riding you a little hard.”

I paused and said, “Doc,” to a guy solo published in Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine, whose treatments have saved literally dozens of lives, she knows. But I’ll tell you this, nothing personal, she’s the only person in this entire fucking place who makes me feel safe.”

“Fair enough,” the doc said, nodding in agreement.


To read more of Jim’s writing, head to the blog he co-founded, The Gloucester Clam.

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