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Birds and Healing

Birders are well aware that even the unlikeliest of things can sometimes come true. Rarities and mega-rarities bring us so much joy, but an unlikely thing made this past year a very difficult one for me. For the second time, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, this time Stage 4. I thought I had beaten it three years ago, but last March I learned of a sizeable tumor in my liver, one of the most common places where colon cancer spreads. I would need months of chemotherapy, one major surgery, and several minor procedures, along with canceling my upcoming wedding, stopping work, and moving back in with my parents. It was hard.

Even so, there was Joy. Literally, there was Joy. Joy is a nurse who’d worked with me the first time around. I’d liked her a lot then, even though we hadn’t figured out that we were both birders. This time, she saw a post of mine on the local bird club’s website, and she made the connection. Even though I was no longer receiving care in her department, Joy found me. I never told her when I had an upcoming appointment, but almost every time I sat in my chair to receive chemotherapy treatments, prep for CT scans, or wait for the oncologist, Joy was there, and we talked birds.

Birds are good for healing. It must be something in their vitality, the way they move through the world with such seeming ease, easily passing through physical barriers the rest of us would find difficult or impossible to overcome. It is easy for the mind to wander to birds while hooked to an Oxaliplatin drip.

I’d hoped that while I received treatments I could at least continue working on my writing, but I soon learned that was impossible because of a thing called “chemo-brain,” a mental fogginess that destroys a person’s ability to concentrate. I remember the way that nasty stuff felt inside my head, and I appreciate the ability to coordinate my thoughts on birds and nature into writing all the more now.

So birding became even more important. It was my only passion I had left. I went through two migrations while on chemotherapy. I can’t understate how much birds helped me. Sometimes I would be too tired and sick to even go outside, and sometimes I would push it and suddenly become so exhausted I would need to lie down on the forest floor and sleep while my fiancée Adrienne sat beside me. But on each of the days I felt strong, we were outside, seeking warblers in South Florida’s tropical hardwood hammocks and waders in its wetland expanses.

Halfway Through

Adrienne and I birding outside a hardwood hammock, halfway through the treatments.

I even saw a few life birds. There was the trip to Key West Adrienne and I took before my liver resection. I had the chance for two lifers, Brown and Masked Booby, at Dry Tortugas. Then a miraculous Red-necked Stint appeared on a nearby key. We searched twice, along with dozens of other birders, and missed it, until someone posted a report of the bird having been relocated. We arrived, and Joy was there, waving us right over as if she’d been waiting for us the entire time. There, pumping along the beach between two Semipalmated Sandpipers: a Florida state first and lifer, the Red-necked Stint.

I may be young for cancer, but beyond that I don’t think what happened to me is particularly unique. Lots of people go through what I went through. The point of it all is: birds are healing, but birders are healing too. Joy may be the most appropriately named person I’ve ever met, but any of us can be Joy. Any of us can help someone pass through barriers that would otherwise seem difficult or impossible to overcome.

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
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