When Life Is Not Easy
I WAS quite young when I was forced to face the harsh realities of life. You may agree with me that life in the world today really is unfair. It is to all of us—eventually. All of us get sick. True, a few may grow old without any major sickness, but then all of us face death.
I probably think about dying more than I should. But let me explain why, and also why I have, in a way, benefited from what has happened to me.
When I Was Nine
I was born in September 1968 in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of five children. Father was disabled, and Mother worked as a cashier to support us. About the time I turned nine, Mother noticed my stomach was raised on one side. She took me to the local medical center. The doctor felt a large mass, and a few days later, I was admitted to Kings County Hospital.
After Mommy left, I cried because I was scared. The next day two men dressed in light blue clothes wheeled me into the operating room. I remember that the last thing I saw before waking up in the recovery room was a blinding light overhead and something being put over my mouth. The doctors successfully removed what is called a Wilms’ tumor (a form of cancer), one of my kidneys, and part of my liver.
I spent five weeks in the intensive care unit. Every day, doctors changed the dressing. I would scream when they pulled off the tape. To lessen my pain, the doctors had someone come in and try to distract me. I remember that the person talked to me a lot about frogs.
After getting out of intensive care, I spent four more weeks in the hospital. During that time, radiation treatments were started. These were painful—not because of the radiation—but because I had to lie on my stomach, which was still sore from the surgery. Radiation treatments were given every day Monday through Friday.
When I was released from the hospital in late November 1977, I continued receiving radiation as an outpatient. When these treatments were finished, I began getting chemotherapy. Every day Monday through Friday I had to get up early in the morning and go to the hospital to be injected with powerful drugs. The doctor would put a needle into a vein and push the medicine directly into it. I was scared of needles and would cry, but Mommy told me I had to go through this to get better.
The chemotherapy treatments had horrible side effects. They made me nauseated, and I often vomited. My blood count dropped, and I lost all my hair.
Restricted by Illness
The following spring, on Easter Sunday, we were getting ready for church when my nose began to bleed because of my low blood count. My parents tried everything, but the blood kept coming. Doctors stopped the bleeding by packing my nose with gauze, but then the blood started coming through my mouth. I became very weak from loss of blood and was admitted to the hospital. To keep from infecting me, those visiting me had to wear gloves, a face mask, and a gown over their clothing. In a week my blood count had risen enough for me to be released from the hospital.
Chemotherapy was immediately resumed. I couldn’t attend school, and I really missed it. I missed my friends and playing outside with them. I received home tutoring, since my doctors felt that I shouldn’t attend school while on chemotherapy or too soon after it was discontinued.
That summer I wanted to visit my grandparents in Georgia as I usually did, but I was not permitted to go. However, the hospital arranged for cancer patients to go to an amusement park in New Jersey. Although I was exhausted afterward, I had enjoyed myself.
I finished chemotherapy late in 1978 but continued to receive home tutoring—altogether for more than three years. When I returned to school in January 1981, it wasn’t easy to adjust after being taught at home for so long. Sometimes I would get lost trying to find my class. Yet, I really liked school. I especially liked music, typing, and gym class. Some of the kids were friendly, but others would make fun of me.
“Are you pregnant?” kids began asking me. This was because my stomach was swollen. The doctor told me not to worry and that the reason was that my liver was growing back. When I received a checkup in March, however, the doctor put me in the hospital. I started to cry—I had been able to attend school for only two and a half months.
A biopsy was performed in which tissue was taken from a tumor in my liver. When waking up after the procedure, the first person I saw was Mommy. She was crying. She told me that I had cancer again and that the tumor was too big to take out and that I would have to have chemotherapy to shrink it. I was still only 12.
The chemotherapy was administered in the hospital, which meant I went in for two or three days at a time every few weeks. As usual, I suffered from nausea and vomiting. Food tasted bland, and I lost all my hair. Chemotherapy treatments continued throughout 1981. In the meantime, in April, I started home schooling again.
Early in 1982, when I was admitted to the hospital for surgery, I was so weak that the nurses had to help me on and off the scale. The chemotherapy had shrunk the tumor, so surgeons were able to remove it along with another part of my liver. Again I was in the hospital for about two months. Toward the middle of 1982, I resumed chemotherapy, which continued until early 1983.
During this time I was sad because I couldn’t go to school. But then my hair grew back, and I started to feel good again. I was happy to be alive.
Finally, Back to School
My home tutor arranged for me to graduate from junior high school with the class that I was with briefly in 1981. I was very excited about this; it was nice to see my friends and to make new ones. When graduation day came in June 1984, I took pictures of friends and teachers, and my family took pictures of me to record this special event.
That summer I went to visit my grandparents in Georgia and stayed most of the summer. When I returned in late August, it was time to get ready for school. Yes, I was finally going back to school. I was so excited!
Curious About Religion
Dawn and Craig were different from other students, and I was drawn to them. When I gave them Christmas presents, though, they said they didn’t celebrate the holiday. “Are you Jewish?” I asked. Craig explained that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and that Christmas wasn’t really Christian. He gave me some Watchtower and Awake! magazines to read on the subject.
I became curious about their religion, which seemed so different. When I went to church, we would hear the same thing over and over again: ‘Believe in Jesus Christ, get baptized, and you will get to heaven.’ But that seemed too easy. I had come to believe that when things are too easy, you are either a genius, or something is wrong. I knew that I was not a genius, so I concluded that something must be wrong with what the church was teaching.
Eventually Craig began studying the Bible with me during our lunch breaks. One day he invited me to an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I went. I found Craig and sat with him and his family. I was impressed by what I saw—people of different races worshiping together in unity—and I was also impressed by what I heard.
When Craig and I got new classes, we could no longer study the Bible together because we didn’t share the same lunch period. Craig’s mother called my mother to see if she could study with me, but Mommy said no. Later, she gave me permission to go to Christian meetings. So I called a Kingdom Hall listed in the phone book and learned that the meeting began at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday. The day before, I walked about 30 blocks to the Kingdom Hall to make sure I knew the way.
When I arrived the following morning, a man asked me if I was visiting from another Kingdom Hall. I told him that this was my first visit but that I had studied for a short time. He kindly invited me to sit with him and his wife. The meetings were so different from church. I was amazed at how eager many were to comment during the question-and-answer session. Even young children gave comments. I raised my hand and answered a question too. From that time on, I continued attending meetings and began progressing in an understanding of Bible truths.
In December 1986, during my final year in high school, I went for a routine checkup. What the doctor saw in my right lung made him suspicious, so I was called back for further X rays. When I learned that these revealed that something was definitely wrong, I started to cry.
A biopsy was performed; the doctor used a needle to take a piece of the tumor from my lung. The growth proved to be cancerous. In fact, there were three tumors, including a large one near the arteries of my heart. After a discussion with the doctor, we decided that I would take two experimental chemotherapy drugs to shrink the tumors before the operation. The side effects would be the usual—complete hair loss, nausea, vomiting, and low blood count.
At first I was depressed, but then I began to pray to Jehovah a lot, and this strengthened me. Graduation was less than six months away. My teachers were understanding and kind; they just asked that I provide a doctor’s note and that I try to keep up with my schoolwork.
School Was Not Easy
Besides the challenge I had of doing classwork when I was so sick, my hair began to fall out. When I bought a wig, schoolmates said my hair looked great—they didn’t realize that it was a wig. However, one boy did. Every time I walked into the classroom, he would spell the word “wig” on the blackboard, and he and his friends would laugh and make fun. All their teasing made me depressed.
Then, one day in the crowded hallway, someone from behind grabbed the wig off my head. I turned quickly and picked it up. But dozens of kids saw my bald head, and I felt so hurt. I went to a stairway and cried. The next day I could see from some students’ faces that they felt sorry about what had happened. Classmates told me that a girl had paid a boy to pull off my wig.
Stand on Blood Not Easy
With the chemotherapy, my blood count dropped very low. To make matters worse, my nose would bleed, sometimes two or three times a day. I wasn’t baptized, but I took a firm position and said that as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I would not accept blood. (Acts 15:28, 29) My oldest sister encouraged one of my little nieces to tell me that she didn’t want me to die. Father was upset, demanding that I take blood, and Mommy kept telling me that God would forgive me if I took a transfusion.
At the same time, doctors warned me that with such a low blood count, I could have a heart attack or stroke. Since I was determined to stand firm, they had me sign a release form saying that if I died, they would not be responsible. Soon I recovered sufficiently to return home and go back to school. However, because of my low blood count, the doctors decided that I should now take radiation therapy rather than chemotherapy. I had these treatments every day after school from late April to early June 1987.
Graduation, Then Baptism
Graduation was a special occasion. My sister had helped me shop for a dress, and I had bought a new wig. Mommy and my two sisters were there, and afterward we went out together for a memorable meal.
At the time, I was not receiving chemotherapy or radiation. But a few weeks later, the doctor called and said to come into the hospital for another cycle of chemotherapy. I didn’t want to go because in one week I would be attending the district convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses at Yankee Stadium in New York City. However, Mommy said to go ahead and get the treatments over with. So I did.
I was very excited during the convention because on Saturday, July 25, 1987, I was going to be baptized. We had a police escort to Orchard Beach, the baptism site. After being baptized I returned to the stadium for the rest of the day’s program. I felt very tired that evening, but Sunday morning I got ready and attended the last day of the convention.
Facing the Blood Issue Again
The following afternoon I was hospitalized with a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit [39°C.], a kidney infection, and an extremely low blood count. The doctor threatened that if I didn’t sign the consent form for a transfusion, he would get a court order and force blood on me. I was very scared. My family was pressuring me; my sister even offered to give me some of her blood, but I told her no.
I prayed a lot to Jehovah to help me to stand firm. Thankfully, my blood count began rising, and the pressure to take blood ceased. Although I needed to continue chemotherapy, I had no suitable veins left. So a surgeon made a small opening below my collarbone to insert a device through which medication could be given.
When discussing the removal of the tumors in my lung, the surgeon said he would not use blood except in an emergency. Mommy was telling me to give approval, so I did. But afterward I felt bad because, in effect, that was agreeing to accept blood. Right away I began searching for a surgeon who would guarantee not to use blood. The search seemed hopeless, but I finally found one, and the surgery was scheduled for January 1988.
The doctor gave no assurance I would live. In fact, the night before the operation, he came to my room and said: “I will try to do the procedure.” I was scared; I was only 19 and didn’t want to die. However, the three tumors were successfully removed, as well as two thirds of my lung. Remarkably, I was in the hospital for only a week. After recovering at home for about two and a half months, I again began chemotherapy, with the usual side effects.
About this time my father also became sick with cancer, and one night a few months later, Mommy found him dead in the bedroom. After his death, I started going to a trade school where I took up secretarial training. I was doing well physically, academically, and spiritually, even sharing as an auxiliary pioneer (temporary full-time minister).
Yet Another Setback
In April 1990, I attended my oldest brother’s wedding reception in Augusta, Georgia. While there my brother said: “Your leg is really big.”
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
“It’s probably a tumor,” I said.
After returning to New York City, I went to the doctor. A biopsy performed under local anesthesia revealed another Wilms’ tumor in my left calf. Tests revealed that the bone was not affected, but the tumor was too big to take out. So the usual chemotherapy followed.
After a while I couldn’t stop vomiting; I had an intestinal blockage. An emergency operation relieved it. However, my intestines became twisted, and another operation was needed. My hemoglobin count dropped to near four, and the doctor kept saying: “You’ve got to take blood. You’re going to die. You probably won’t make it through the night.” I had nightmares about graveyards and dying.
I recovered sufficiently by October to have the tumor removed. They took out about 70 percent of my calf too. It was questionable whether I would walk again. But I needed to walk to get places in New York City, so with therapy and with determination, I began walking—first with a walker, then crutches, next a cane, and finally a leg brace, which left my hands free to use my Bible in the door-to-door ministry. During chemotherapy, I dropped to 59 pounds [27 kg]; I am five feet one inch [155 cm] tall and normally weigh about 118 pounds [54 kg]. As I gained weight and my leg grew, the doctors kept enlarging the brace. Finally, as I approached normal weight, they made me a new one.
Life Still Not Easy
By the summer of 1992, I appeared to be my normal self and was looking forward possibly even to auxiliary pioneering. In November, I received a letter that made me feel on top of the world. It said that my life experiences could be an encouragement to others, and I was invited to relate them for publication in Awake! My elation turned to despair the following week.
A routine chest X ray revealed tumors in my one good lung. I cried and then cried some more. I had coped with the loss of a kidney, part of my liver, most of my left lung, part of a leg, but nobody can survive with the loss of both lungs. Again my family and friends were there for me, and I became determined to fight the disease once more.
Chemotherapy was started to shrink the growths. A doctor thought they might be removed and the lung saved. In March 1993, I went into the operating room. I learned afterward that they took a look and just sewed me up. They couldn’t remove the tumors without taking out the lung. Since then I have been on strong chemotherapy in an effort to kill the tumors.
Do you see why dying invades my thoughts? Would I have wondered so deeply about why we die and what hope there is for the future if my life had been easy? I’m not sure. However, I am sure that what is truly important is, not whether we live or die now, but whether we gain the blessing of Jehovah God, the One who can give us everlasting life. Dwelling on the hope of life in his new world, throwing my burdens on him, and keeping close to friends who share my hope have helped sustain me.—Psalm 55:22; Revelation 21:3, 4.
I am happy that other youths have their health. I hope that what I have related may move many of them to use it, not in vain pursuits, but wisely in Jehovah’s service. How grand it will be to enjoy good health forever in God’s new world! In it there will be no need for doctors, hospitals, needles, tubes—no, nothing to remind us of this sick and dying old world.—As told by Kathy Roberson.
[Picture on page 21]
When I graduated from junior high school
[Picture on page 23]
Helping in food service at a circuit assembly in New York