Thursday, July 23, 2020

Toenail Joy is Essential in Sickness or Pandemic

A few weeks ago, before salons were shut back down again due to COVID-19, I got a pedicure for the first time in months. Because I almost always wear closed-toe shoes, very few people get to see my neatly-trimmed peachy-pink toenails.

But I do.  

And they make me happy.

I learned the importance of toenail joy during my grueling three-year battle with cancer.

At times, I had multiple lines coming out of my body and tubes in my nose and mouth. At one point, my arms were swollen and the color of eggplant. My hands had to be restrained so I wouldn't pull out my tubes. After a brain biopsy, the quarter of my head that was shaved sported a nasty scar. Paralyzed from the waist down, I couldn’t control my feet, even to hold them upright as I lay in bed. Machines massaged my legs to prevent blood clots and my feet were attached to braces to keep them in place and prevent them from flopping to the sides.

But through it all, my toenails looked fabulous.

That made me happy.

My friend Mary came up with the idea, bringing a portable pedicure kit with her from Northern California to my hospital bedside. I remember worrying for a second that the strong nail polish aroma would annoy my roommate. (But it was only for a second, because she had been complicit in smuggling in several kittens into our room, so she had already tested the hospital roommate etiquette limits.)

Months later on a return trip to a different hospital, Mary gave me another pedicure. Because I was in a hospital bed at various facilities for four-and-a-half months unable to walk, my frame of vision was limited. I couldn’t see or do much, but I could see my toes. If they had resembled toenails a la Howard Hughes, it would have depressed me more than I already was. After months in the hospital, I learned health aides will help you with a lot, but pedicures was not on their list of services.

My peachy-pink toenails today
When I was released from the hospital to my home, I had a home nurse who was a godsend. Skilled, trustworthy and kind, she would help me with all sorts of things. When I learned she could transfer me into my wheelchair and help me into the car to take me to my doctor’s appointments, I had another idea.

Sure enough, she was able to take me to my local nail salon for periodic pedicures. I couldn’t get in the spa chairs which are part of the luxury package. I sat in my wheelchair and put my feet in a tub of water. It seemed luxurious to me.

For about a year after being released from that lengthy hospital stay, I had to return one week a month for more intensive chemotherapy. One time, a female doctor came in to check on me. She chatted with me, listened to my heart and lungs and checked my extremities. When she got to my feet, she said, “Nice color.” 

“Thanks,” I said proudly. “I always like a peachy-pink or coral.”

She looked confused.

“I was talking about the color of your feet. It shows that your circulation is good.”

I guess that was good news.

Three years after my non-Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosis, my cancer returned. I needed a bone marrow transplant.


I could finally walk (with a walker), my hair had grown back and I was getting back to my new normal life when I got this news. I knew nothing about transplants and didn't know anyone who had ever had one. I learned it would entail stronger chemotherapy sessions (seven times the amount I had before), total body irradiation and a month in the hospital feeling the sickest I had ever felt.

I was given a thick booklet to explain the lengthy carefully-orchestrated process.  And I was assigned a transplant coordinator nurse to answer all my questions. 

I dutifully read through all the information. I was nervous about all of it, including the description of the hospital stay, the restricted diet while in and out of the hospital and a no -contact-with-pets rule. But if it meant saving my life (and it did), it was necessary. But there was one requirement that annoyed me.

Nail polish was prohibited. 

When my transplant coordinator called on the phone to answer any questions I might have, I asked her about the nail polish rule. Even on toes? 

Yes, she explained. Doctors could tell a lot about your health by looking at your nails.

What about clear nail polish? I asked.

Well, she said. That would be OK.

So during my transplant, I lost every hair on my body, I had excruciating mouth sores that made it nearly impossible to eat and I had an allergic reaction to an intravenous antibiotic that created itchy red welts all over my swollen face and body (my Jabba the Hutt phase). I was too weak to read or focus on a TV show. I threw up many, many times, and I became crazed and hallucinatory after frantically pushing the button of my self-administered morphine pump. 

But my toenails looked fabulous.

And that made me happy.

Also, the transplant -- almost 12 years ago -- saved my life.

That makes me very happy.