We met on her second day of hospital admission. She was in her early 30s with a newly diagnosed leukemia. Her symptoms had been mild to start, and now she was here, admitted with cancer, about to begin chemotherapy. She had a six year old daughter at home. The walls were filled with artwork, family photographs, the annual Christmas card.
This is how it often is. You don’t have cancer until you do. The symptoms are mild at first – “I thought I had a terrible virus”, “I was so run down but I had been working so hard”, “My back was aching something terrible but I had just started CrossFit”. You’re living your normal life until it shatters.
I am a dermatologist who sees patients in the hospital when they experience side effects from cancer treatment, or have had a bone marrow transplant with skin complications, or have skin disease in either setting. This is not the role we usually envision for dermatologists. When I was an intern at a renowned academic teaching hospital, the ICU attending skipped over me while we were reviewing a chest X-ray on rounds. “You don’t have to know how to read this – in a few months you’ll just be doing Botox.” I was sleep-deprived, short on caffeine and the low woman on the totem pole, so I swallowed my tongue and folded it up as an anecdote I would later share with my own residents. As one of my mentors always says: you have to show skeptics your value, not tell them about it. Eventually they’ll come around.
The things I love most about medicine – the connections I have with my patients, the trust they have in me, the things I learn from them – are sometimes the hardest part of medicine. Patients often share their hopes and fears. They tell me things they have only told their closest families and friends. I had unprotected sex with someone who wasn’t my husband. I tried to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I never wanted to have children. I grew up in foster care and never had a family who loved me. It’s heavy. There is never any judgement, just a deep understanding of how complicated our world is. There is so much loss and pain, and on the flipside so much beauty and love.
Many times, my patients are soon in remission. The cancer was removed surgically, the cancer treatment worked, the bone marrow transplant gave them a new chance at life. I often don’t see these patients again, but some continue to visit me each year for a routine skin check, or because of a new rash. Those are joyful visits. I receive updates on wedding anniversaries, growing children, grandchildren, vacations – general life excitement.
Other times they never leave the hospital. Or they arrive to the hospital a different person. The complications pile on, everything goes wrong. Soon there is a planned discussion between oncology and the patient’s family. How aggressive do they want to be if new complications arise? Is it time to transition to comfort care? Whereas the first time we met they were sharing photographs of their families and explaining the artwork on the walls, they are now hooked up to machines and unable to communicate beyond a blink. I still talk to them when I enter the room. I repeat who I am and what I am doing – “I will be taking a look at your skin. Your oncologist is worried about the new blisters on your legs. Is it okay if I lift up your sleeve?” The syllables fade into the air, surrounded by assorted alarms. I finish my exam, say good-bye.
The next day we arrive to round and the family is huddled around the bedside, family members spilling into the hallway. The daughter is there. This is usually a sign that the patient has a few hours to live. It is a terrible moment for physicians. I wish I could shield my residents from it, in the same way I yearn to shield my children from the terrible things that happen in our world. We move on to the next patient but there is a heaviness in the air. A six year old is about to lose her mother, a husband is about to lose his wife, parents are about to lose their daughter. The hospitalization ends here but the repercussions of this loss will resonate for eternity. Eventually it will be explained as my mother died when I was six, but there were days and weeks and months and years leading up to that moment which were filled with all of the details that make our lives rich.
I sign into the hospital’s electronic medical record at home that evening to finish notes. I see that our patient has died. My children are sleeping in their beds and my husband is working on a deadline next to me but a mother has died. I move on to the next task, almost in slow motion. This is how it often is. You don’t have cancer until you do. You’re breathing until you’re not. You’re alive until you’ve passed.
What I’ve learned is this: there is nothing to do but to keep moving. Cherish the small things in life, keep your family close, take care of your health. Tomorrow is not a guarantee, trite as it may sound. Wealth and accolades will not shield you from disease and death. At the end of the day, we are all left with nothing. Ashes to ashes.
To my fellow physicians-I see you in the trenches, trying your best to keep your academic hats on while retaining your humanity. To patients everywhere-your doctors truly care about you. They think about you long after you’ve left their office and often long after you’ve left this earth.
I still remember my patients who have passed. I keep the trinkets they gave me, write down their quotes and life lessons, and have stored away the memories we’ve shared. Medicine is broken in so many ways – out-of-touch administrators with unreasonable demands, insurance companies refusing access to care, astronomical cost – I could go on and on. But all is not lost as long as the purity of the patient-physician relationship remains.