Two thousand fifteen was a big year. It was a year with many firsts, to include my first Uber ride. My first Uber ride, while mundane, served to be both urgently functional and incredibly gratifying.
I had traveled to Boston hopeful and nervous. A five hour drive from my home near Syracuse, NY.
I arrived to one of the largest cities on the east coast with a nickname to match all the fun things to do.
But I wasn’t going for fun.
Beantown is also a place many folks go because of cancer. If you are from the surrounding area and you tell someone you have the disease that is the 2nd biggest killer of humans in the U.S., the person will probably ask two questions.
And then regardless of the type, “Are you going to Boston?”
My diagnosis was November 19, 2014. I remember it like it was yesterday. I drove myself to that too . . . alone. But that is another story.
Nearing the end of the painstaking and nerve-racking process of discovering, considering and ultimately deciding what to do for treatment, I found myself at Dana Farber Cancer Institue for the second time.
I had a late afternoon appointment with a renowned expert in MRI Guided Biopsy. I don’t recall his name, but I remember he was from Turkey.
When I arrived at the Center, I could feel my hands clench the wheel, perhaps like an Uber driver upon seeing the nasty customer waiting on the corner.
Two things came to mind.
How far down into the underground parking complex was I going to have to drive this time to park? Would I once again feel the elephant in the room horror of being surrounded by a floor full of cancer patients?
This is when I realized how much of a big business cancer medicine has become. Palatial, well appointed facilities staffed with an army of well paid staff from intake to attendants to nurses and doctors all there to make our disease experience as comfortable and positive as possible.
Now inside the garage, I was happy I would not have to contend with the bracing cold and biting winds of February in Boston.
How was I going to treat my cancer?
I checked my notes and found my way to the doc for my consult. That’s right, all the way to Boston for a consult. The procedure would be at some unknown time in the future. But I was starting to get impatient. I wanted to figure out my path. How was I going to treat my cancer?
The floor and office of this specialist was quiet. It was just the doc and his intern as I was the last appointment. We talked. He explained. I listened. I asked questions from my list. We agreed it was a good option. He excused himself to check the schedule.
He appeared at the door and said, “How about tomorrow?”
My mind filled with questions and factors I didn’t want to bring up. Such as, I didn’t plan to spend the night. Therefore, I had no change of clothes. And where would I stay?
I was thrilled and worried at the same time.
What could have been weeks of waiting to get the procedure, was possible in less than 24 hours.
I blurted out “Hell yeah, let’s do it!”
The doc replied “OK. See you tomorrow. A nurse will call you first thing in the morning with instructions and prep. Don’t eat after 8 pm.”
I found myself in my car, a few minutes later, four floors below ground with no cell service. I needed a place to stay and I was hungry. But first, I had to call my wife with the surprising news.
Next, I looked up some hotels on Google. Got a place only two blocks from Dana Farber. I could walk!
I called my friend who lives and works in Boston. The last time I was in town, we went to dinner. He was one of the few people with whom I shared my cancer journey at the time. We connected but only by phone. He was heading to Philadelphia on business the next day and had an early flight so dinner with him was out. While feeling disappointed, I was also grateful for his friendship and conversation.
I wanted to be a survivor, mostly for them.
Before bed, I called my wife one more time. As I was falling asleep, I thought of my son in college and my daughter in high school. They made me want to be a survivor so I would find out how they end up. Maybe feel what it’s like to be a grandfather someday. I fell asleep.
I was awakened to a phone ringing, not initially remembering where I was, then I realized who must be calling.
It was the nurse! She was very nice but all business. She asked me if I was still fasting, gave me a timeline, and described the logistics.
Finally, she said, “Oh and Mr. Johnson, who do you have to pick you up after the procedure?”
Flashback to getting caught cheating on the vocabulary test in junior high.
The truth was “no one, why?”
So, while shaking off sleep and feeling my heart skip a beat, I managed to say, “I’m not sure but I’ll have someone there.”
She said, “Well sir, I need to know who so I can call them before to verify and after you are done.”
Mind racing . . . then the classic “Can I get back to you?”
She said, “Of course Mr. Johnson but I need to know by 9 am.”
“Well what time is it now?”
We hung up.
Considering my options
I called my wife before she left for work. We discussed various scenarios including the ridiculous idea to have her drive to Boston and maybe get there in time for when my procedure is done.
She: “So, they won’t let you walk?”
“No, I’ll figure something out.”
We hung up.
I immediately thought of my friend that I called last night and remembered he is on his way out of town.
Do I know anyone else in Boston?
As I swiped to find my Contacts app, I saw the Uber app.
I had been playing around one day and put the app on my phone and set up an account in case I was traveling on business.
I tapped it.
Where are you going? I shuffled through my papers, found the address and typed it in.
My screen lit up with about six drivers in the area. Do you want to book?
I felt so alone . . .
As I thought about what the nurse wanted, I felt so alone. Like a stranger in a new land with no one to help me.
Suddenly, I remembered my old college buddy who lives in Boston, but I hadn’t seen or connected with him in years. Should I call him? Do I have his number? Was that fair to expect him to drop everything for me with no notice?
I tapped cancel ride. . .
Feeling alone made me wonder about the procedure. Maybe I should call and get another time for the procedure. Maybe I don’t need the procedure.
I tapped the Uber App again. Ordered a ride and called the driver. To my surprise he answered in a very cheery voice albeit with a heavy accent I didn’t recognize.
Driver: “No, no sir. I can take you there but I cannot guarantee I will be there to pick you up later. You can just order another car..”
Me: “Yes, but I have your number and I can call you when I am ready, OK?”
Driver: “I am sorry sir. Do you still want a ride now, I am on my way?”
Me: “No thanks, have a good day.”
Thinking. Thinking. . .
I tapped the Uber app…again and booked my first Uber ride
I tapped Uber App one more time. Ordered a ride and rolled the dice.
From the hotel lobby, I see a shiny, clean silver Honda Accord pull up. I step out into the winter air. It was cold. The driver maneuvered the car to a break in the snowbank so I could get in. I asked if I could get in the front. He agreed after moving his jacket and other stuff.
Once inside the car, I realized my driver knew very little English when he pointed in the direction to the hospital.
I introduced myself with extra body language. Sadly, I was probably louder too. The driver seemed to understand my name and extended his hand. I shook it as he said, “I’m Ronny”.
That was a relief. It was a start. I pointed to the building and asked if he could come back at 2 pm when I was told my procedure would be done. He didn’t understand. Or at least he didn’t know how to say it. I showed him my medical paperwork and tried to explain what I was going to do and that I needed a ride back to the hotel. I explained that the nurse needed to know who was coming to pick me up. Ronny just nodded.
So I wrote it down. I gave him my name and number, as well as, the nurse’s name and number. I asked Ronny for his number.
Finally, I told my Uber driver I had to go into the hospital. I said, “See you later?” Ronny nodded and smiled. He took my notes. I got out and he drove away. I was hopeful but not confident.
The procedure was like a lot of procedures. Greetings from nurses. Staff buzzing around. “Get undressed Mr. Johnson and put this on.” I followed orders and wondered when she was going to ask about my ride. She hadn’t yet. I felt that the further into the preparation we got the less likely they would cancel if they didn’t like my ride home situation.
I was alone in the prep room. My wife texted me. “Are you good?” I replied “Yes, I think so.”
The nurse came in with a clipboard. “So who will be your ride home, I need to give them a call.” I hesitated then I reached for my notes and gave her the name and number.
“My friend Ronny will be here,” I said. She cheerily took my notes and left.
The procedure was fine. I woke up in the prep room and immediately recalled my ride situation. Not wanting to ask, I proceeded to dressed and waited.
My friend Ronny will be here
My emotion turned to an odd mixture of surprise, disbelief and relief when the curtain opened and Ronny was there! I greeted him, shook his hand and did my best to act like he had been a long time friend. He stood there smiling. The nurse released me and Ronny and I made our way out of the hospital.
In the lobby, there was another man in a suit who walked toward me as Ronny smiled and extended his hand. Clearly, he knew Ronny and began to explain he was Ronny’s boss. The three of us rode back to the hotel in his car. They walked me in, I tipped Ronny again and gave him a hug. He was now my friend for life.
Looking back, I probably could have negotiated something with the nurse over the ride home. Perhaps, I could have found someone at the hotel to meet me and walk me back. Maybe, they had a shuttle. But I was vulnerable and scared. Cancer does that.
Thankfully, Ronny had understood enough of what I was saying or comprehended my dilemma in ways words aren’t required. He called his boss who owned a number of Uber cars to relay my note. They came through for me, providing extra mile service. This has kept me coming back time after time in many cities since then. When I need a ride, Uber is my first call.
By the way, in case you are wondering . . . I’m good . . . thriving!
Have you ever found yourself alone facing a first time and not knowing what to do? How did you get through your experience? Or have you ever found yourself relying on the kindness of strangers? Head over to the #365FirstsChallenge and let’s talk some more about it!