Last week, during one of the good days, I took half my usual hike. I don’t have the energy to make it to the top of the ridge anymore. The panoramic bay views will have to wait. As I picked my way around the rocks of the steeper route, I listened to an old November 20 podcast of NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.” This time, on the “It’s Not My Job” segment, they asked perennial Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton about his estate there. Just a few days before the show originally aired, Newton had announced that he wants to open his home his home to tourists and to create a “Wayne Newton Museum/Celebrity Hall of Fame” there as well. Turns out that in addition to crystal staircases, antiques culled from European castles and a memorabilia collection that includes Steve McQueen’s Rolls-Royce and one of Johnny Cash’s guitars, he has some zoo inclinations on the William Randolph Hearst scale. Newton told NPR that his 40-acre spread Casa de Shenandoah (OK, much smaller than Hearst Castle on the California coast) is also home to marmosets, Arabian horses, flamingos, swans, and South African penguins. Of the 50-odd species of penguin, Newton tells Peter Sagal eagerly, only four are native to the Artic. The rest would die in sub-zero temperatures. So that’s how you can have penguins in Las Vegas! Making them part of a black velvet painting zoo is also a great way to clear up all those tax liens and bankruptcy problems.
Wayne Newton and his warm penguins are, admittedly, a strange thing to think about as you walk into the chemo bay where the Dignicap freezy machine stands. But this time, next to the FDA trial, controlled-study machine that will freeze my scalp there stands a Penguin Cold Cap chest freezer. It looks like something that a store owner would use for keeping ice cream sandwiches. Actually, it’s for holding dry ice and frozen caps for women who are not, like me, in the odd situation of having a Stage 1 cancer that merits chemotherapy.
On the other side of the chemo bay from me are two sisters from Marin County, just north. The one who doesn’t have cancer is my age. Her sister looks to be 8 to 10 years older.
The younger woman has dressed for action, in running shoes, Lululemon yoga pants and shirt, highlighted blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. “Wow, I wish I had known about the freezer!” she exclaims as she maneuvers one of three wheeled coolers into the chemo bay, and sees the chest freezer. “I just spent $100 on dry ice for this go-round.”
Then she sets a kitchen timer in the shape of a lemon on the windowsill. “Twenty minutes per cap for the first two. Then thirty minutes per cap for the rest of the chemo, and for two hours after it’s over,” she explains.
Somehow, I’d not understood that the Penguin system uses many caps. I had thought you pulled the cap off periodically and stuffed more dry ice into it. Actually, it’s like a head-shaped reusable cold pack. The dry ice just brings the caps down to temperature.
The older sister sits calmly and quietly in the infusion chair. Her hair is shoulder length, thick, wavy, luxuriant with just a hint of gray. Yoga sister flips open one of the coolers and takes out a Penguin cap. She spreads the cap out on the nurse’s work station and aims a strange device that looks kind of like a joy stick that has been ripped from a video game, an infrared thermometerwith laser sighting. She aims the laser at each of the cap section, reading off temperatures, “26 degrees below, 22, 35, 18 … Wow, they’re all over the map today.”
Apparently, they’re all within range, because then she starts to fit the cap onto her sister. She lies it on the crown, then folds the sections, origami-like, around the contours of her sister’s head. A Velcro strap secures the chin. Then two wide elastic bands: one loops like a hippy headband around the forehead, the other loops at a 45-degree angle to that, around the back of head. It’s definitely more low-tech than the Dignicap, and COLD. I find 5 degrees Celcius to be plenty cold enough, thank you. I can’t imagine enduring temperatures 30 degrees colder.
After the cap is on, the sister with cancer closes her eyes. There is something very serene about her, centered. She obviously does not want to talk, but she somehow signals this in a way that is not unfriendly. “After the first six minutes, the nerves freeze,” Yoga sister explains. “Then it’s OK.”
20 minutes pass. The lemon timer goes off. Yoga sister leaps up, undoes the straps, the Velcro, pulls the warmed cap off. She pulls a frozen cap out of the cooler, lays it on the table, points the laser zapper at it, judges it acceptable, starts folding it around her sister’s head, adjusts the straps just so and sits down again.
This goes on for more than two hours. Toward the end, yoga sister says, “Wow, it’s a hassle. We barely got these caps in time. There were only a couple available in the Bay Area. I think the word is getting around. You rent them, $500 a month. Penguin supplies the caps and the straps. You supply the coolers, the thermometer, the dry ice. Then we have to keep changing them on the drive home, and then at home until it’s two hours after chemo has ended.
“But my sister is stage 4. She just didn’t want to go through losing her hair this time.”