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‘The Green Room’: The center of cancer discussions, questions and commiseration

We, as firefighters, have faced everything, but when faced with terminal cancer, moments of connection mean so much

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The tolling of the bell signifies a newly cancer-free patient at Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards, Colorado.

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As a firefighter, you have faced every crisis, emergency and challenge thrown at the walls of your life and career. You have endured all but today. Today your MRI has revealed cancer. You know it’s serious by the nurses’ tears, the constant reassurance of technicians, and the tight-lipped resolve of the doctors coming and going from your bedside. You try to believe tomorrow is another day. This is your hope.

Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards, Colorado, has what can affectionately be called a “Green Room.” While there is not exactly a great deal of green in the room itself, some swear there is some form of the color in the trim. Regardless, this room is the staging area for all radiation patients and, more importantly, the center of countless discussions, questions and, yes, a great deal of commiseration. Peter has bladder problems, and Glenda has had both breast cancer surgery and chemo. Radiation is her third stop.

Interestingly enough, not a great deal of time is spent in the Green Room. The actual “zapping” only takes minutes as patients are rotated through quickly and efficiently. Techs and nurses adjust the precise micro-dot locations while comforting the “zapped.” They are extremely grateful if your original first-day ink body markers are still visible, as it speeds placement of the actual machine. Whirling, buzzing, humming with clicks; large panels rotate effortlessly around your body as anxiety is replaced by relief.

The bulk of time in radiation therapy is spent laying down flat for a form-fitting fully molded body cradle. Plastic made to be heated is warmed and shaped into a cast while cooling. For head, neck and shoulders, a plastic lattice piece is heated, shaped to the face and chest while “warm” and then allowed to fully hardened before fastening to the flat. The Detroit Red Wings goalie would be impressed.

Hours spent in this agonizingly long session of mold preparation result in brief stints in the Green Room and then on the radiation table – especially appreciated on a daily or weekly basis.

The front half of the Green Room is as you would expect from such an oasis. Snacks are in the basket atop a fridge equipped with all manner of liquid refreshment – especially appreciated by those requiring a full bladder, like Peter. The back of the room has four doors leading to changing rooms, as some patients wear pajamas and robes or are simply more comfortable with a favorite hat properly placed. Chairs are positioned throughout the room for conversation or quiet.

Today, Peter is depressed with the Colorado Avalanche losing, wondering if the Kraken will make it to the Cup. Gloria is whispering to Glenda, as they are both curious about the little girl sitting next to me. The girl not more than 10, next to her oxygen tank, petite but not emaciated, quiet but with a look of resolve. Her demeanor would silence even the largest pessimist … if there were any at Shaw.

Then, clang, clang, clang resounds throughout the hallway.

We rise from our chairs directly across from the Green Room to see a brass bell jutting from the wall being rung by a jubilant young man holding a molded head and chest piece. Laughter and tears abound as family and friends cry and cheer amidst the constant hugs. Little kids jump for the bell’s lanyard.

Peter informs us that the tolling of the bell signifies a newly cancer-free patient. We are instantly aware of the significance of such an act, knowing the ordeal that preceded it. We stand in reverence.

Gloria looks at me and asks if such a celebration is uncomfortable, my condition “being what it is.”

Assessing my focus on the sound of the bell, I realize that I am actually thrilled for such festivities. Tears of joy and the murmur of liberation – freedom from the disease. Who could ask for more from an average Wednesday morning?

Things begin to quiet, and the reality of our treatment schedule sinks back in. By now the little girl is standing beside me tugging at my shirt. I look down at her smiling face full of enthusiasm and reflecting me in her big brown eyes.

“It’s OK,” she whispers, “I’ve rung the bell twice.”

Note: Names and conditions have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at Fairreachforum.com. His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.