MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Film Festival

On September 9, along with many of my fellow film journalists, I packed my bags and boarded a plane to Toronto for one of the most challenging (and occasionally rewarding) film festivals we film fest junkies work all year: the Toronto International Film Festival. I’d just come off a long, hard month of helping my dad pack his house in Oklahoma City so we could get it listed and sold, and driving him and his very irritated cat the 2,300 or so miles to Seattle, so he could live closer to me and my brother. So when I was feeling unusually fatigued during that month of moving, and even more so in the ten days between my return to Seattle and departure day for Toronto, I chalked it up to being wiped out from getting my dad moved. I told myself if I wasn’t feeling better by the time I got home from Toronto, I’d go see my doctor for a check up and maybe a vitamin supplement.

I got into Toronto late Wednesday night, had a late dinner with my boss and his wife, which I nibbled at more than ate, and then crashed hard at the flat, only to wake up in the night with drenching night sweats. But I got up on Thursday, sucked down a venti Americano from the Starbucks down the street, grabbed my festival badge and hit the ground running. It was great, as it always is, to see friends in line and at screenings. I caught four films that day, banging out reviews on my cute little red laptop as fast as I could between screenings, and had dinner with one of my best friends. I was fighting another headache all day, but around 1AM it suddenly got much, much worse, so I took a couple Tylenol with codeine (bless the Canadians for that and ketchup chips) and finally crashed around 3AM, after getting three of my four reviews polished and formatted.

I woke up throughout the night, alternately cold and hot, and finally got up around 8:30AM because the night sweats were so bad I was completely drenched and shivering. I noticed that I felt oddly weak on the right side. Thinking I’d perhaps pinched a nerve tossing in my sleep, I tried taking a warm shower but kept feeling weaker and weaker. I realized the right side of my face and my right arm felt numb, and when I couldn’t hold a glass of juice with my right hand I grabbed my laptop, the house phone and my cell and moved to the couch. I quickly reached a couple friends to let them know what was up, and to get some help getting to a hospital, because by then my right leg was going numb too and I didn’t think I could make it on my own. I was afraid I was having a stroke. My head was still throbbing and I felt like a furnace. I was on the phone with one of my friends, giving him the address and flat number, and I suppose I passed out while talking to him because the next thing I knew I was being wheeled into a hospital on a stretcher.

And so, instead of spending the festival watching films until my eyes were red and sore, talking about films over dinner or in lines, writing feverishly about films to get reviews banged out, and going to the occasional party or dinner, I spent the next week in isolation in Toronto Western Hospital, having test after test run. I’m pretty sure they took at least half my blood supply. When I looked in the mirror I was shocked at the change in my appearance from a pic of me taken on my cell phone just a couple weeks before. Now, I looked pale and drawn and scared. I’d lost 32 pounds in six weeks. When visitors came, they had to don layers of protective gear — gloves, gown, mask, goggles — just to come near me. The docs were thinking meningitis maybe, or viral encephalitis, so I was on a constant regimen of IV antibiotics and antivirals. I was still feverish, and still having the night sweats. I couldn’t eat anything other than Jell-O and broth, and even that required an anti-nausea med beforehand.

On Tuesday, September 15, I thought I was finally being discharged. I waited all day for my discharge instructions, before the doc finally came in and said sorry, we can’t release you yet, there’s a clot in your lung and we need to do more tests. They started me on a blood thinner to prevent more clots from forming, did some more tests, and finally late the next day came in to do my discharge. Two docs came in to discuss things, and rather than just standing at the edge of the bed, they brought in chairs and sat down, which I thought was odd. They went over the blood clot issue first, making sure I knew how to administer the shot in my stomach I’d have to take indefinitely. This medicine was ridiculously expensive and my in-the-middle-of-a-divorce bank account was low; thank goodness for great friends, because an angel in the form of one of them ditched her notoriously busy TIFF schedule to rush to the hospital to pay for those meds for me so I could go home.

Then the docs glanced at each other and got more serious. We need to tell you, they said, that you have a mass on your pancreas that’s concerning, and the clinical indications are all pointing to the strong likelihood that you have some type of malignancy. Might be lymphoma, could be the pancreas. I listened as they tossed lots of scary medical terms my way, and nodded when it seemed appropriate. Finally the head doctor gently asked, “You seem to be taking this surprisingly calmly … you do understand what we’re saying? It’s imperative that you follow up with an oncologist next week, you need a lymph node and bone marrow biopsy urgently. I’d prefer to do them here, but we know you want to be home where your family is. But this has to be done immediately, you can’t put it off. Do you understand?”

Yes, I understood. Lymphoma. Or pancreatic cancer. Four young kids still at home who need their mother. A divorce already in progress, and my health insurance is through my husband, so how the hell will I afford whatever treatments I need when that’s finalized? What happens if you have cancer and you lose your medical insurance? I’ve never worried about that before. Do they just stop treating you, tell you sorry, you no longer have insurance, you’d better start arranging for your burial or cremation?

If you can’t afford the spendy medication that’s keeping your blood from clotting so you don’t have a stroke on top of everything else, what do you do? Choose between your kids eating, or you staying alive? How do those things work exactly? I may have appeared calm on the outside, but on the inside I was reeling, and I wasn’t even sure I was physically up for the long flight home.

I did make it home, thanks to my dad paying for flight upgrades so I’d be more comfortable, and my mom arranging wheelchair service through the airlines, because I was so short of breath from the blood clots and so weak from being ill that I couldn’t even walk through the airports I’d breezed through just nine days earlier. The oddest thing was that when I was being wheeled through that tunnel at O’Hare, through which I’ve walked countless times on the way to countless film fests — that’s when it all hit me and I finally started to cry. I might never see this airport again. I might never go to another fest, or see many of my friends again. I might die, and leave my children behind to fend for themselves without their mother. I think I’m a pretty tough chick, but I didn’t feel like one that day. I felt terrified and weak and utterly overwhelmed.

In the three or so weeks since I got home from Toronto, there have been many doctor visits, many more blood draws, many more tests. One of them was an endoscopic ultrasound performed last Thursday, so the GI doc could get some biopsies. They said I just needed to follow up with him by the end of the month, but then late on Friday afternoon his nurse called: “Dr. S— needs to see you on Tuesday. Can you be here?” I was nervous all weekend about why he wanted to see me so urgently, and when he walked into the room I knew the news was not good. He told me that the small mass on my pancreas is an endocrine pancreatic tumor. There are more tests to come this week and next to determine exactly what type and whether it’s spread to lymph nodes or my liver, and I have to get into the surgeon immediately as there will be major surgery in the near future, and I have to talk to my oncologist about whether I’ll have to have chemo and radiation after that.

The one light in all this is that it’s because I ended up hospitalized during TIFF — and especially because of one persistent (first year!) resident who was determined to find out what was wrong with me and caught that my spleen was enlarged — that this was caught early. And because it was caught early, the likelihood that I will end up on the “survivor” side of this unpleasant equation is much, much stronger.

I was upset by this news, for sure. I’d hoped the Toronto docs were wrong, that all of this would turn out to be nothing much. But oddly, my control-freak self feels much stronger and calmer now that I at least know what I’m up against. Now that I know what’s wrong, we can make a plan and I can fight it. I’m not afraid anymore of the bone marrow test tomorrow, or the surgery, or whatever else gets thrown my way.

Hell, I did natural childbirth three times. I endured six weeks in a hospital with a PICC line that got infected and nearly killed me, to keep my youngest son inside me long enough for him to be born safely. I can endure this, and kick its ass. I am a tough chick. I have a great family, and a circle of marvelous, supportive friends. All will be well.

In the meantime, I’ll still be writing here at MCN; David has asked me to make Voynaristic a more personal column like this piece, and we’ll be adding another regular column for me that will just be on movies, movies, movies. And with any luck, I’ll see you at Sundance.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon