I walked into the exam room on Tuesday to meet with my oncologist and her first words to me were, “Wow! This is really kicking your butt, isn’t it?” Sometimes I forget that even in my most fashionably wrapped turban my appearance is a bit startling and she hadn’t seen me since my second chemo in October. But as I gave her a hug I had to maneuver past her left leg which was in a walking cast propped up on a chair, I said, “It looks like you’re the one who has been doing some kicking!” So began our visit.
I told the doctor that this course of chemo has been a lot rougher than seven years ago. Maybe it’s just that I’m older or maybe one particular drug is just harder to tolerate. She looked at the nurse’s notes on the computer screen and then began investigating the various side effects with gentle questions and observations…”Yes, even your eyebrows are almost gone…how is your appetite? Metallic taste, huh? Yes, you have no taste buds-your tongue is completely smooth. Do you have pain? Are the fluids helping?” I appreciated her unhurried, conversational style. Though she occasionally typed on her keyboard, she always looked at me, not the screen. She took her time and gave me her full attention, despite the fact that her schedule was backed up because of her injury and limited mobility.
One more chemo is scheduled for January 26. “Then what’s the game plan?” I asked. A PET/CT scan was ordered for February 9. “I will call you as soon as I get the results and talk with Dr. S in San Antonio. I’m fairly certain he plans for you to continue with a maintenance dose of Avastin (intravenous) every three weeks- but the schedule won’t be as rigid and the side effects are much more tolerable. We just need to watch your blood pressure.” I looked at her directly and said, “I am expecting that this PET scan will be absolutely clear.” She met my gaze with a smile and said, “Me, too.” Then I picked up my calendar and asked, “So with that understood, when can I start traveling? I have several commitments late in February and into early April that require traveling…” She cautioned that my energy will not fully return for several months after finishing chemo but as long as I pace myself, I should be off the “no fly list” after February.
As she called the nurse to make my various appointments I asked about her injury. A broken cuboid bone in her left foot. She shared her concerns that four weeks post-injury she was still having significant pain with weight-bearing. I asked how in the world she was managing hospital consultations and rounds? She said that though she had tried to cut out those activities, “They just don’t get it. They keep calling me.” Almost impossible to say no. I sympathized and she said, “So please get the sisters to pray for my foot to heal!” I promised her that I would (and all my blog-readers, too!) and she gave me another big hug as I started to leave. Her last words to me were, “I’m praying for you, too!”
I cannot say enough how truly important and therapeutic it is to have physicians who care for their patients. Really care. I’ve said to medical students and residents that loving your patients and allowing them to love you back is powerful medicine. Heartfelt compassion does not cloud clinical judgement. Born from our common human experience, compassion lights up ways of knowing that only augment our technological expertise.
Another physician I saw earlier this week, one whom I sought as a primary care provider last fall, confided near the end of my visit that two years ago he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. “One morning I was here at the office seeing patients and I got this terrible abdominal pain that I thought was appendicitis. I had the staff reschedule all my patients and went to the radiology department where they discovered I had a kidney stone lodged near my appendix. And completely incidentally they discovered a small mass on the top of the other kidney! I would never have known about the cancer- until it was far advanced- if it hadn’t been for that stone passing from the other kidney. You just never think it will happen to you…” His voice trailed off… What gratitude I felt for the window of compassion this physician more than ten years my junior had opened! This is someone who has the capacity to understand.
Spiritual writer Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Doubleday Image Books, 1979) that captured my imagination early in my medical training. For health care to be a ministry and not just my career, I needed not only to be aware of my own brokenness and vulnerability but to allow that awareness to become a compassionate bridge to those I would serve. This actually became a source of strength through the twenty-five years I was in medicine. It challenged me “to find in the fellowship of suffering the way to freedom.”
My experience of cancer, from diagnosis to treatment, from remission to recurrence and treatment again, has only deepened these beliefs. Meeting my physicians as wounded healers brings a solidarity that soothes my soul. To have my doctor acknowledge so candidly that this treatment is taking its toll on me, especially from her own position of pain and limitation, was a tremendous validation. And aren’t we all having the stuffing knocked out of us by one experience or another?
A song that is running through my mind conveys this awareness that we can all be wounded healers, journeying together in genuine compassion. The Servant Song by Richard Gillard is worth a reflective listen!
Thanks to all who are sharing the journey with me!