A Christmas in Las Vegas
Christmas for me is usually spent in the Bay Area doing pretty much…nothing. And if someone told me a few months ago I’d be in Las Vegas while somewhat immunocompromised and a new COVID variant was spreading like wildfire I’d tell them that they’re crazy. But as it turns out I’m just chemo-brained.
Traveling While Immunocompromised
Traveling while undergoing chemo isn’t something to be done lightly. Prior to going my oncologist had ordered Zarxio (Neupogen). It’s a white blood cell booster which would provide added protection since my counts were already low going into cycle 9. Chemo does a number of blood counts (both red and white) in general and days 7 – 10 tend to be the worst…and Christmas day was day 11. While my counts in theory would be rebounding during my time in Las Vegas they wouldn’t be back to their pre-cycle level until I got back (and still might be a bit low if the counts before cycle 9 were any indicator). So it was somewhat disconcerting that Anthem had not approved the Zarxio when I went back to the infusion clinic to return the chemo pump and get the first of two Zarxio injections.
Now as it turns out there was some miscommunication between me and the nurses. They said Anthem hadn’t approved the Zarxio request, which was true. I interpreted that to mean that the request was denied, but apparently Anthem was taking its sweet time considering whether to allow it or not. Because when I got back from Las Vegas guess what I found in my mailbox? A letter indicating that the Zarxio had been approved. Way to go Anthem (not!). Apparently timeliness is not one of Anthem’s strong points – like the many weeks we waited for the PET scan approval.
But my oncologist said I could go as long as I took extra precautions. So I did, with a stash of KN95 masks, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a couple Binax at-home COVID testing kits (compliments of JT – you can’t find at-home test kits anywhere in the Bay Area. Or apparently Las Vegas.)
The Unmasked Masses
Since I drove I was able to avoid the airport crowds. But the moment I got into Las Vegas I started getting a little worried. As I was driving to The Signature I observed The Unmasked walking everywhere. Even many of those who had a mask on their head apparently missed the “how to wear a mask” tutorial. Many didn’t have it covering their nose. And more than a few thought that wearing them as chin guards were sufficient. To top it off social distancing Vegas style involves staying 6 millimeters apart.
Now as JT put it when I mentioned this to her, this isn’t really a surprise. After all, the sane people were staying home. I wonder how many of the people in Vegas were chemo-brained?
The first thing I did on getting to my room in was to make sure I could get an ATSC 3.0 signal. Yes, this is a working trip. One of the “perks” of the suite was that it had a mountain view. Now the “premium” suites all have a “city view” (i.e. of the strip). I suppose that’s good, but if you want to get the ATSC 3.0 signals then you want a room facing the opposite direction towards Henderson, and a glorious view of the hotel’s loading area. I’ve had several interesting discussions with hotel staff in the past about “downgrading” my room from a city view to a mountain view. Usually I’m there for a convention (CES or NAB), so they just roll their eyes and assume I’m one of the weird convention crowd.
After getting things set up and starting a capture of the signal that I could analyze later I let my brother Dean and sister-in-law Cindy know I’d arrived and asked if they’d like to get together. Which of course they did. So they came over to The Signature. Toting a suitcase full of Hawaii treats. I believe my “I’m pleased with your weight gain” oncologist and “you need to eat more” sister-in-law are in league to ensure that I gain at least another dozen or two pounds by the time my treatment is over. I’ll be very unhappy if I die on the operating table fat and with bad hair. (In case you’re wondering, they brought four pints of Zippy’s chili (frozen), several bags of ginger sembei, and several bags of almond cookies. All things which I’ve missed from Hawaii!)
Now I had the Binax test kits so that they could test before we started hanging out. But to be honest after seeing conditions in Las Vegas it seemed not quite worth it. There’s no way I was going to avoid The Unmasked, which I’m sure were infinitely more hazardous than my brother and sister-in-law. So I still have the two test kits, one of which I’ll use tomorrow to test myself.
Since testing everyone in the casino would’ve taken a while I switched to Plan B: throughout the stay I double-masked (a cloth mask over the KN95), and made liberal use of the hand sanitizer I carried around. (If Plan B didn’t work out then Plan C was to stop breathing. That has its own unfortunate side-effects so I’m glad I didn’t need to resort to it.)
We tried to look for a not-so-crowded area where we could sit and talk, which involved walking through the MGM Casino (where many of The Unmasked were celebrating Christmas by sitting in front of slot machines. I don’t get it.) We eventually ended up in the Mandalay Bay where Dean and Cindy were staying, and while not empty was much less crowded than most of the other casinos. After getting something to eat (chocolate cake for Christmas dinner? Fine by me!) we ended up in a small vacant sitting area in the Four Seasons where we spent a good few hours talking. Now to put this in perspective, I believe this is only the second time in our adult lives that my brother and I have really talked. In this case there was much to talk about – our father’s declining health, my purchase of the family home, and of course thirty or so years of catching up. It was a good evening, one well-worth the risks of going to Las Vegas, and I hope we have many more opportunities to get together in the future.
The Brits (and their Canadian offspring) call the day after Christmas “boxing day.” It apparently doesn’t have anything to do with cleaning up all the boxes opened the previous day. It’s also the second day of Christmastide, or St. Stephen’s Day, when according to tradition people have their horses blessed. This apparently occurs off The Strip since no horses made an appearance.
The morning and afternoon of Boxing Day was mostly to myself, and I had one thing planned: the pilgrimage to M&M’s World. Now M&M’s World is right in front of the MGM Grand, and The Signature is really the MGM Towers. MGM of course wants you to walk through the MGM Grand casino to get to M&M’s World, but Apple Maps helped me find the side streets / service road so I could avoid the crowds.
When I got to M&M’s World I was surprised to find a rather long line – they were apparently enforcing capacity limits! +1 for COVID safety. But -1 for using the 6 mm rather than the 6 foot rule for social distancing in line. I opted not to catch COVID while waiting and headed back to my room to do some ATSC 3.0 work.
In the evening I took my Dean, Cindy, and Cindy’s brother Michael (yes, it gets confusing with two Michaels around) out to dinner. I was originally planning on Jean Georges in the Aria, but for whatever reason they were only open to Aria guests. So instead I got reservations at another of my Las Vegas favorites, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House. After thinking about it a bit I figured this was a blessing in disguise, since Del Frisco’s is off the strip so we could avoid the crowds. Even before COVID Del Frisco’s tended to be less crowded in general with tables well-spaced.
As a top-tier establishment I figured Dell Frisco’s would be up on COVID protocols. Well everyone was except for our server, who was one of those who didn’t believe in covering her nose with her face mask. The face mask often slipped down so her mouth wasn’t covered either. I debated asking the management for an alternate waiter, but decided to just leave some feedback that they need to take better care of their patrons. At least if they want us to still be alive to come back. (Some of us would be more than happy to return after we died of COVID, though I imagine that would ruin the ambience for some of their clientele.)
If any of you go to Del Frisco’s I strongly recommend the calamari. Though I’ve been there many times this is the first time I had it, and I’m wondering how I could have missed it all these years! It’s not just battered and deep fried squid. It’s “Shanghai style”. Rather than describe it here, I’ll just point you to their recipe. The server’s face mask incompetence aside, we think they also managed to swap all of our plates. We all ordered the special (bone-in filet), but all prepared differently. The “medium plus” was definitely looking raw, and the raw was looking more like a medium. We ended up sending the raw “medium plus” back to be cooked a bit more. I wonder if we got their “B” team. This is definitely not the service I’m used to at Del Frisco’s. The meal was capped off with a chocolate mousse brought out for my brother’s birthday (we managed to mention this to the server while my brother left the table.) Definitely a dessert to get next time!
After dinner we went to the Aria so Cindy could play some slot machine (I still don’t understand the appeal), went looking for the ice rink in the Cosmopolitan (mostly populated by kids and parents escorting their kids), then Cindy and I walked to M&M’s World while Dean and Michael drove. Fortunately there wasn’t a line at M&M’s World. But there wasn’t any new merchandise either, which was rather disappointing.
The Day After Boxing Day
We decided to get together for lunch the next day. Normally I’d drive out in the morning so I’d get home in the early evening (it’s an 8 hour drive), but we were having such a good time I figured I’d stay a little longer. So Monday morning I checked out, stuffed everything in the car, and told the valet that I’d be back in a few hours. One nice thing about the Signature is that the staff is quite accommodating.
The day after Boxing Day should probably be called Recycling Day or Box Pickup Day or something, but apparently the Brits haven’t come up with anything yet. As the third day of Christmastide it’s the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, when one is supposed to bless and consume wine. Alas, consuming blessed wine would probably have my oncologist throwing a fit. So we had to make do with something a bit less alcoholic.
We originally were going to meet at the Grand Lux Cafe in the Venetian for lunch, but that turned out to be quite crowded and had an hour wait. The same for the Grand Lux in the Palazzo. I suggested we either do the food court in the Canal Shops or one of the restaurants in St. Mark’s Square. We ended up at Canaletto in the latter. Their fruit-topped waffles are excellent, and their pizzas looked equally tasty (though none of us got the pizza).
All good things come to an end, and after lunch it was back to the Signature to begin the drive home. Before hitting I-15 I stopped by a few CVS stores to see if I could nab any of the elusive COVID test kits. But no, they were as scarce as orange cream M&M’s.
A Jaunt Through LA
On the way back I decided to make a slight detour to LA since Nextstar had brought an ATSC 3.0 signal online a month or two earlier. (For those of you in Hawaii, a hundred miles counts as a slight detour.) So instead of veering off into the Mojave desert at Barstow I continued straight on I-15. This no doubt thrilled the nav system in my car. It always wants me to go through LA on the way to or from Las Vegas. I never figured out why since it’s longer than going through Mojave. Maybe it just doesn’t like the desert.
Apple Maps wasn’t quite so thrilled and kept telling me to turn around after I left Barstow. It apparently knew something I didn’t – traffic from Victorville through the Cajon pass was a disaster. I think a couple snails and a banana slug pulled ahead of me at one point. The normal two hour drive to Pasadena took more than four. But at around 10 I arrived at a McDonald’s in San Gabriel, verified I had good reception, and started capturing the signal. Then just to make it look like I had a good reason for camping out in the parking lot I went in and got a chicken sandwich. And a holiday pie (those are amazing!). At around 11 I started the trek back to the Bay Area and got home at 4 AM.
When you’re undergoing cancer treatment there are certainly things you shouldn’t do. Going to Las Vegas with a suppressed immune system during a COVID outbreak generally would count as one of them. But the whole reason for getting treated is not to just be alive a bit longer, but to live. And in my book establishing new relationships with my brother, sister in law, and her brother qualifies as something well worth the risk. (And besides driving at 90 MPH at 3 in the morning was probably a greater risk than walking through a crowd of The Unmasked…)