RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – If you are a cancer patient, you probably know what an “infusion suite” is.

If you don’t, then bear with me. Before I define “infusion suite,” that’s probably what the executive suite at Nortel feels like these days.

At an oncology practice, infusion suite is the name sometimes given to the area where cancer patients are injected with chemotherapy.

Take my word for it, please. You don’t ever want to have to visit such a place.

Chemotherapy is even worse than visiting the dentist or undergoing surgery. At the dentist, you at least are put into “happy land.” When you have surgery, you either are put completely under or the operating area is blocked from your view and a local pain-killer is administered.

When you receive “chemo,” however, you are chained – I’m sorry, I exaggerate, but only slightly – to a mobile tree from which hangs the bottle of poison that drips into your body. You can actually watch the stuff heading toward your veins and then feel your body react to some of the most potent killers known to man goes to work.

Within minutes, if you try to drink something cold, your mouth and throat feel as if they have been struck by a million needles – simultaneously. By the time you leave, you are deathbed sick sometimes. At least you are alive.

Get the picture?


Now, what the heck does this have to do with Nortel, you ask?

Mike Zafirovski, Nortel’s boss, announced a 10 percent workforce reduction on Wednesday, the day after he disclosed his chief financial officer was quitting. Nortel’s stock took a licking on Tuesday then rebounded 9 percent on Wednesday as Wall Street hailed the cost-cutting moves, including the layoffs.

Most of the media is focused on the fact that 2,900 jobs will be cut. Wrong. It’s 3,900. That’s more than 10 percent of Nortel’s current workforce. Of those folks headed for unemployment (thankfully, the tech sector is in many ways crying for workers), 1,000 will be replaced by lower-paid folks overseas.

As inhuman as CEOs appear to be some times, I have to think Mr. Z didn’t enjoy making those cuts. But he is administering chemotherapy to one very sick patient.

Nortel really has been on life support for years. It’s workforce has already been slashed by more than 60,000. The Nortel campus in RTP is part ghost town.

Mr. Z has cut, cut and cut again in just over a year on the job. He’s reshaped the management team. He’s shuffling the product portfolio. He’s settled the financial mess that will cost the company billions in class-action settlements.

Yet more work needs to be done. The previous rounds of chemo, mixed with radiation therapy and surgery, have not produced a company with a clean bill of health.

The drip, drip, drip of chemo continues. Will Nortel survive? Will it ever be declared “cancer free”, so to speak?

As I wrote Wednesday, Mr. Z has made a lot of progress. Then the company has a relapse, such as losing the CFO.

What’s next? Another trip to the infusion suite?

Chemo patients often wonder if the cure is really worth the price. Well, if the other option is dying, there really isn’t much of a choice. You bear the pain, put up with the neuropathy that can leave your feet and hands ice cold and numb all the time, and hope your hair grows back. (Actually, I never lost any, but then I didn’t have much to lose anyway.)

Most of all, you pray that the chemo does its poisonous work and kills every blasted cancer cell in your body.

In the case of Nortel, Mr. Z has to be praying this latest dose of chemo will do the job.

If the company has to make another trip to chemo land, what’s left to treat?