“What is it that you’re saying, doc?”
Even as I say these words, I can hear a slight timbre of panic slipping into my voice.
“It is cancer, Mike.”
I slump back into my chair as I allow the weight of this moment to sink in. Here I am, at only thirty-two years old, owner of a successful multi-national company, married to a beautiful wife and with two children. Sitting in the wood-paneled room of my family doctor whom I have known since I was a young boy. The family doctor who has just wiped away all of those successes by telling me the outcome of last week’s brain scan.
“But it was just a bit of a headache, it already cleared up...” I meekly protest, more for myself than for anyone else.
“A persistent, two-week headache that had you pass out in the middle of a boardroom meeting.” Doctor Pearson corrects me from behind his oak desk, while he clicks through some items on the computer screen in front of him.
As a previously blank screen in front of me blinks to life, it shows a neat slice of what I presume to be my head, and everything inside it. Even to my untrained eyes the white masses inside the brain tissue are unmistakable.
“So what are my options? Surgery?” I ask, trying not to show too much of my inner turmoil.
Dr. Pearson shakes his head.
“The cancer has progressed too far already. The spectral scan we did of the cancerous masses showed it to be malignant. It has spread throughout the central nervous system and elsewhere already.
“Normally I would only have radiation and chemotherapy to recommend, to try and slow down the cancer, but there may be another option.”
With every preceding word having felt like a hammer blow to my sternum, I feel a sudden surge of hope at Dr. Pearson’s last words.
“What option would that be?”
“It’s purely experimental, mind you. It’s a combined research project, which uses both new cancer treatments and this one new stasis technology to essentially stop time for the patient. This way multiple experiments and tests can be run without the cancer progressing.”
“So I would be put into this… stasis and by the time I wake up, I would be cured?”
Dr. Pearson looks slightly uncomfortable at my question.
“That’s the intention, yes.”
Clearing his throat, he continues: “As you may already know, one of the issues with cancer therapies so far is that each case of cancer is slightly different, which makes treating them essentially a race against the clock as we try to figure out which approach works best.”
“But this way we can stop that clock and give the doctors and scientists all the time in the world to figure out the best approach, right?” I assert.
“So what’s the negative in this? To me it sounds like a pretty good approach, even if it does sound like it would be quite expensive.”
“As for the costs…” Dr. Pearson adjusts his glasses in a business-like manner at this point, “since this is considered to be experimental therapy, it is covered by the university’s budget and various medical companies that are participating.”
“So it’s free for me?”
“Yes. Though it also means that no guarantees can be given, let alone how long you will have to remain in stasis.”
* * * * *
As I walk into the lobby of the university hospital a few days later, I find myself reflecting on the events of the past days. From the responses of my wife and our daughters, to the responses of my friends, acquaintances, family members and business associates.
Although everyone admitted to it giving me the best possible chance at something other than a slow and possibly painful death, the fact that it is an experimental treatment without any guarantees or time projection did not help with convincing anyone of the benefits.
A friend of my wife told me bluntly: “I think you should spend your last months with your family instead of chasing ghosts, Michael.”
The more I thought about it, the more I came to accept that trying this experimental treatment was the right course. What would I have to offer if I didn’t, after all? A husband, father, son and friend who would waste away in some hospital bed or in a bed at home while surrounded by medical equipment whirring and beeping away while prolonging and documenting my agonizing death. That’s not the image I would want to leave my children and wife with.
Even if I didn’t make it out of this treatment attempt in one pieces, at least the last image I would have left behind would be one of me walking out of my own volition into the hospital with my head held high and ready to face this unknown battle. Best case I’d be able to meet my family again in a few months or less.
At the front desk I do not have to mention my name, as the young man behind the desk recognizes me instantly and tells me to wait for Dr. Pearson. Taking a seat near the front desk while I wait, I look around the lobby while aware of the gravity of this situation. When a young couple walk past me with a baby in a stroller, I feel a momentary sense of panic as I become aware of all that I stand to lose.
Letting my eyes drift towards the glass ceiling of the lobby that allows a clear view of the blue sky outside, I feel such worries slide away. My choices have been made, leaving only one clear path that may lead to a future for myself. Is it selfish? Perhaps, but as I have found while giving this matter a lot of thought after that last conversation with Dr. Pearson, nothing is ever clear-cut. As selfish as choosing for my own survival could be seen, it is the only chance that could bring real happiness to others.
While pondering on these matters, my name is called and when I look up, I can see that I’m being waved into the facility by the guy behind the front desk.
* * * * *
In some ways a hospital visit is like a business meeting, I figure, as I roll down my sleeve after yet another examination and withdrawal of blood. Both sides are supposed to get something out of it, but you better stay sharp to be sure that you get what you really need.
After having lost count of the examinations, scans, tests and questionnaires that I have been subjected to for the past hours, I’m beginning to question whether just maybe I should have stayed with my family. In my mind I can just picture what they must be going through now, not to mention the coming days and weeks. With a sudden pang of regret, I curse myself for not asking about how often my family would be informed about my status.
I look up and note Dr Pearson is walking towards me where I’m sitting on the side of an examination table.
“Hi Doc, how is it looking?” I respond, trying to sound cheerful despite my sinking mood.
“I think we got all the information we need to run the first few batches of tests and projections. I’ll have to double check, but if you have no objections, we can probably get you into the stasis room soon.”
“Splendid. I was just about ready for my afternoon nap.” I jest.
Smiling at my attempted levity, Dr Pearson adjusts his glasses, a sign which I have come to recognize over the years as a sign of nervousness.
* * * * *
It’s almost amusing how in movies scientific experiments involving stasis chambers and similar always look so very… sci-fi, whereas in real life prototypes really just look like that. No polished metal or fanciful blinking lights and terminals everywhere with random texts and numbers scrolling on them.
Instead, the stasis room is just another large examination room, with the metal-and-glass stasis… capsule placed along one side of the room, and the rest of the room crammed full with racks full of equipment that is connected to the stasis capsule by more cables, wires and ducts than one could count.
Before I am allowed to slip into the stasis capsule, however, I have to put on a special skin-tight outfit. Full of sensors and convenient access holes, of course. As I awkwardly get into the capsule using the steps that are put in front of it, I feel strangely comforted that the inside of the capsule is padded and rather comfortable to lie in.
While others fuss around to hook me up to more wires and tubes than I’d care to keep track of, Dr Pearson keeps an eye on things while standing right next to me.
“So this is it then, Doc?”
“You’ll stay conscious for a few minutes at the most while the stasis procedure starts up, as we talked about before. Beyond that… we’ll handle everything from here.”
“Sounds good. Hoping for some nice dreams.”
As the weight of the moment sinks in, the others in the room continue their work and before I realize it, I am fully wired in and hooked up. Before the lid of the capsule slides close, I can hear Dr Pearson wishing me the best of luck.
After that, the thick glass of the capsule is making it impossible to do more than passively observe what is happening inside the room. Just people milling about, basically, with Dr Pearson watching the process from a distance.
Although I have been briefed on the procedure, it still feels weird to me when suddenly I begin to start feeling really warm and sleepy. Before I know it, my eyes are beginning to close on their own.
* * * * *
It takes a while for me to become fully aware of the fact that I am awake again. As my brain scrambles to piece together what happened while I was unconscious, the memories come flooding back.
Opening my eyes, I scan the scene through the glass of the capsule. The glass is clear and I can see the room beyond it. Gone are the many people milling about, instead I can see just a few people. Blinking away the grogginess that is clouding my mind, I recognize one of them as Dr Pearson.
With a gentle sliding noise, the lid of the capsule opens and various noises from the equipment in the room greet me. Dr Pearson steps forward along with another person, probably another doctor.
“How are you feeling, Michael?”
As I try to speak, I can feel my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. Working my mouth to loosen things up, I try again.
“Groggy, but I think I slept okay. Does this mean that the big cure for my cancer has been found?”
At this, Dr Pearson and the doctor next to him briefly look at each other before the latter nods at him. Clearing his throat, Dr Pearson briefly fiddles with his glasses.
“Sort of. We could run some tests and trials while you were in stasis, but for the next trial we need you to be out of stasis.”
“So I’ll be going back into stasis again, then?” I say, while hearing the disappointment in my own voice.
“Maybe, we need to see whether what this trial does while your metabolism is active. With a few days we should have all the information we need.” Dr Pearson tries to assure me.
“I see. What day is it anyway? How long was I under?”
“Uhm… about two months.” Dr Pearson says.
“Two months? That’s a pretty long nap.”
I make a gesture as if I want to get up. “I guess you want me to get out of this capsule now?”
As Dr Pearson along with a few assistants help me make my way out of the capsule again, I can feel my body adjusting to having an active metabolism again after two months of stasis. In many ways it feels like I just had a long, dreamless sleep. With no breakdown of muscle tissue during stasis, at least I will be spared from having to use a wheelchair.
* * * * *
Despite having been basically gone for two months, little has changed outside the hospital. I had left the company in capable hands, and my daughters are doing great in school, while looking forward to the summer vacation. I find myself hoping that I’ll be there to enjoy the vacation with them.
After being out of stasis for three days, I hear from Dr Pearson that they would like me to go back into stasis while they process the data. Although the stasis procedure worked better than anyone could have hoped in slowing down the progression of the cancerous growth, during the days that I have been awake the bio-markers have shown a worrying increase in the development of the growths.
As I make my way back into the stasis capsule later that day and try to make myself comfortable, the words from Dr Pearson still ring in my head. If I stay out of stasis again for an extended period of time, it may be too late for any therapy or cure. This means that I’ll likely stay in stasis until they’re quite confident that they can fix it right then and there.
With a heavy heart I observe the same procedure as two months ago when I was first put into stasis. As the now familiar heaviness weighs down upon my thoughts, I find myself wondering when the next time will be that they’ll wake me up.
* * * * *
I recognize the feeling of confusion that is like waking up from a very deep sleep, but different. This time around it takes me less time to remember where I am, and why I am not lying in my own bed.
Opening my eyes, the scene that greets me is at first familiar, but even though the thick glass of the capsule I cannot shake the feeling that something is different this time.
Blinking until my eyes no longer feel like they have had sand poured into them, I can slowly make out more details, but it isn’t until the lid of the stasis capsule slides open that I feel forced to acknowledge what my eyes are telling me.
While moistening my mouth, I move my jaw until I feel comfortable speaking again.
“What’s up, Doc? Why the gray hairs?”
Dr Pearson clears his throat before adjusting his glasses.
“So you have noticed.” He says, with a faint smile on a face that has gained many more wrinkles and gray hair since I last saw him.
Feeling the tension in my chest, I ask the question that’s been burning on my tongue since I woke up earlier.
“How long this time?”
An uncomfortable silence falls over the room.
“Ten, twenty years?” I wager a guess.
“Nineteen years, give or take a few months.”
* * * * *
Has anyone ever wondered what it feels like to have fallen out of the river of time? This is the question I find myself pondering as I sit on a bench in the local park, watching the trees, the lake, and the people in front of me. Moving, living, changing.
I am suddenly jarred out of this mood at the sight of a young couple as they walk past me with a baby in a stroller on the path in front of my bench. My memories flash back to that moment, a few days... no, twenty years ago.
I’m cured, Dr Pearson told me after I got pulled out of the stasis capsule. They used a new technique using something to do with nanoparticles and special tracking molecules that allowed them to selectively and very precisely remove the cancerous cells without touching the surrounding tissue. If they had tried anything else sooner, whether months or years, I would have likely died. Or ended up with severe brain damage.
Feeling bitterness welling up inside of me, I push back against the feeling. Even when remembering that first meeting with my family after getting released from the hospital within days of waking up from stasis, I have to remind myself that this is what I chose. A second chance. A way to see my children grow up and to grow old with my wife.
I guess part of me was surprised that I still had a family, that my wife hadn’t divorced me while I was sleeping away the years in that stasis capsule. Instead she ended up running the business in my absence while raising our daughters mostly by herself.
Everybody is doing well. My wife. Our daughters. Dr Pearson, too, even if he is getting on in years now. And me? My life was put literally on hold for two decades, but I think I feel ready to live this brand new life that was granted to me.