Fresh Eyes

Many people come in to my clinic to shadow me and follow me around seeing my patients with me. Today I have asked 2 college students to share their thoughts. I had sent them both an email that said:

“Thank you for coming to the clinic, you and another college student have enhanced my understanding of many things that practice can offer. I want to task you with something, not sure if you would do it, but worth asking. Can you write to me from your age perspective what you perceived in the clinic about things like death, treatment, cancer and patient care? I would welcome the feedback. Did you enjoy it? What particularly was intimidating? What did not jive? Or things you liked or questions that persisted in your mind………..”

Here is what they had to say:

 

Mo,
Before shadowing in an oncology clinic, cancer was a statistic, it was something my older relatives had gotten when I was too young to really understand, it was a great research field, it was cells dividing out of control. When I stepped foot in the first patient’s room, cancer was suddenly none of those things. Cancer was right in front of me; it was a person, a family, a lifestyle.

As a person who tries to avoid less-than-happy emotions at all costs, I have always tried to take a passive approach to death. Somewhere lurking inside me were all the thoughts about death that I tried to keep shut away, telling myself I would deal with them when I had to. After the first time I followed Mo around his clinic, I left in complete shock, telling myself I would never be able to do that kind of clinical work. I saw how strongly death affected Mo’s life, and I was not ready to let those thoughts out of their caged place, let alone work with death every day. I told myself that I had a wonderful experience learning from Mo, but there was no way I would be able to do that as my career. When Mo invited me back to shadow another time, I felt compelled to face the unsettled feelings of the first visit.

I am extremely thankful for Mo’s generosity in letting me into the clinic another time because leaving the second visit, I had a completely different outlook. I like that treatment is a puzzle. Not everyone is able to have the same treatment with the same outcomes because of a multitude of factors. Therefore, each day, each patient needs complete concentration in order to figure out what kind of treatment will work in each specific scenario.

It was shocking to me what good spirits many of the patients were in. Cancer is such a scary word, but it almost seemed as if many patients were moved by the solemnity of their condition to fight not only for themselves, but also to help future patients.

It was either a defense mechanism, or truly just caught up in all the information, but I noticed that almost every patient I saw was so focused on the logistics of fighting the cancer that they did not seem focused on death, at least not on the outside. They asked very few emotional questions, the types of questions I had expected in an oncology clinic; most questions were in search of more information about what the cancer was doing and what was the next step they needed to take. Perhaps this is because while they are out living their lives, these thoughts of death creep in, but when they are in the walls of a medical facility, they feel more at ease with real answers instead of the tales their minds come up with.

The mind is very powerful. It can deceive, create, and heal. I am still not exactly sure how exactly the mind plays these roles in a cancer patient, but just in the few hours I was observing, it is obviously that long after the body becomes ill, their mind still continues on, in whatever fashion it can.

-Hailee Reist

 

Mo,
When I first stepped into your clinic, the thought of death was last on my mind. I guess it didn’t register with me that I was going to see terminally ill cancer patients. When visiting patients I found it rather odd to think that these people had cancer. The mood was always light, amid witty jokes that always made the patients laugh as if they were seeing an old friend. The topic of cancer obviously did come up, but for the most part its discussion was very limited upon your arrival to the room. I found that fairly surprising, given the severity of their ailment. The word “death” has never once been uttered in front of patients, yet you told me behind-the-scenes that some might not live for long. It was remarkable to see such juxtaposition. The light-hearted mood was an especially effective mask that seemed to propagate happiness and hope instead of sadness.

Although we had many discussions, there was a particular conversation between us that stuck out to me. We were talking about the future of medicine and you brought up the upcoming battle between surgery and drug treatment. I never really thought about how we are essentially one pill away from curing cancer and that surgery in the future may not be as relevant as it is currently. That really struck a chord with me. It was very interesting to think that surgery as a profession may decrease in demand in response to cancer drug therapy. That argument has definitely inspired me to think on the long run and ponder about the competitiveness and need of certain medical specialties.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the experience. I was able to observe many diverse cases and I was lucky enough to see some patients twice and see how they have reacted to their treatment. I am glad you exposed me to medical oncology. This has been an educational experience that I sincerely appreciate. Thank you for allowing.

– Gal Wald

Random

Death is a door. It is a moment in time that is well-defined.  Once it happens it is irreversible. Just like the diagnosis of cancer. It cannot be undone. I have said the word “Sarcoma” to so many patients. Yet this is a rare disease. It stems from the Greek word that means “fleshy growth”. Yes it is old, and it was present in history before. It scares me to know so little about it. I am just perceiving its vastness. Sometimes when I share with my patient it feels like I am speaking a different language. Muffled I sound to the patient, loud to the student. When I teach it I find myself saying to my students “Sarcoma makes me look smart because there is little known about it, and not a lot of people grasp it. Although I do not feel I know much, it just seems enough.” It is hard to comprehend.

I just hung up the phone with one of my fellows, he was talking to me about a patient who was not doing well. I could sense the eagerness in his voice to find another treatment, but the realism that there is none comes from my experience. A resistant disease to treatments that depend on a very old medicine; surgery – Cut it out, until you cannot , then keep trying to slow it down, with an inevitability that you cannot escape. A truth I have been facing many days in only trying to communicate it better with those who suffer its consequences. We can never relive the past, we barely stay in the present and the future never comes.  But there is a point when all this stops. I oscillate between the concept of death and the diagnosis of sarcoma.

Sarcoma! What is it? I don’t know? We have defined it as more than 150 subtypes. It stems from a very primitive cell called mesoderm. The most common cell in the body but it only makes up 1% of all human cancers. Rare is the diagnosis. Having a sarcoma gives uniqueness to a moment that really makes the person in front of me rare. Having a diagnosis of sarcoma gives definition to a cancer journey, to a patient’s identity, and to my relationship with them. I touch upon the relationships in my mind briefly, like staring at scars that are hard to forget. The knowledge of sarcomas is derived over many years of experience; it is slow to digest, hard to understand. Just like the knowledge of death.

Why am I writing in this way to you this week? Just random thoughts as I sit here on the couch thinking. Perhaps like the random selection of a sarcoma that appears in a human being. Random but exceptionally rare. How can that be random? I share with you my inner pendulum as I swing back and forth between a disease that is so little known and an event so little studied.

It takes a lot of effort and collaboration to get together and understand this very difficult disease. I believe Sarcoma doctors are the only ones who collaborate for the right reasons. They genuinely need the guidance of each other and act as a team to help understand this very diverse, very unique disease. I think of my patient who is struggling maybe near his end, after resisting so many therapies, what else can I do? I think about how inevitably I will fail, trying to find the key to helping patients. We have had small victories in our understanding but it still remains a mystery. I am in constant battle against the unknown and I am about to be wounded again, scarred, as my patient represents my unforgettable memories of him. Wish I could just take a shower and let it all wash away.

Random are my thoughts today. Resistant is the disease I treat. In an endless battle I stand, ready to fight again.

Mo

 

Frazzled

The tension in the work room was mounting. The research coordinator sat next to physician’s assistant who was waiting eagerly by the phone. She was waiting for a phone call from the radiologist. I knew who this was for as I had walked by the room multiple times and seen the patient pacing up and down in the room very anxious to know the results of her MRI scan. It’s not an easy sight. The pacing and that anxious look. The door was open as I passed by, her face staring at me longing for assurance. I gave none, because I did not know the result yet. I offered a simple smile, but this does not have the wanted effect. She continued pacing.

I feel a need well up inside me to remove this patient’s anxiety. Patience, my mind says, we have been down this road before. I’m ready for both battles, but not eager to engage in the battle of bad news. I continued what I do best, seeing other patients. I do not like not knowing too, I thought. I was beginning to get anxious myself, it’s taking too long for the radiologist to get back to us with the results – a sign perhaps that this was not going to be good news after all. I regretfully conjured up the thought of giving bad news. I carried that with me in my heart from room to room as my team patiently waited by the phone. She was not alone in this. But I am sure she felt that she was. We were all worried. That is a feeling we rarely share back with our patients. It’s the feeling that we need to know, for better or for worse.

It’s hard not to get involved emotionally sometimes waiting in anxiety for a test result that might determine the next treatment or seal the fate of a person. The phone finally rang. It’s annoying sound shattered the pensive feeling that surrounded it. It was like waiting for your final grade after an exam you had studied so hard for. I stood and watched, allowing the reality of the truth to become manifest. Her voice was solemn “yes” she said listening intently and jotting down what was being said. I could not hear the radiologist on the other line but I could hear the tone of the voice of the person receiving the news, it was reassuring. Her voice heightened with every response listening intently as the radiologist told her his thoughts about the scan. Each response she gave was happier than the previous. The coordinator and I were smiling. This sounded like good news, the tension in the air very quickly melting away.

We all walked into the room. Frazzled, my patient’s tears were quick to show, and we all shared the news that things looked better than they had seemed. In the rush of it, I hugged her and she started to cry. It was a powerful moment captured in the cathartic delivery of the truth after a very long wait. It was worth it in the end. The coordinator joked “now you have to fill out the questionnaire”, revitalized, the patient just said, “happy to”.

I have been through these times with many people, with them on this anxious journey. I tell you I do not like it one bit, the wait, the pacing, the lack of knowledge and the race of emotions as the truth unfolds. Experience has taught me to be patient as sometimes the unexpected does happen and the wait was merely a mask behind the victory that needed to be told.

Mo

Nik Jiruska: Ewing’s Sarcoma Survivor.

July is sarcoma awareness month so I’ve invited others affected by sarcoma to guest blog throughout the month. Today’s blog comes from Nik Jiruska, a young man who battled Ewing’s sarcoma. Enjoy.

My name is Nikolas Jiruska and I recently finished receiving chemotherapy treatments to fight a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. This disease primarily affects children and adolescents, but I was diagnosed at the age of 20. It was a long journey, and I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I am now back at The University of Iowa nine months later and enjoying life more than ever. Now, let’s go back to April 2013 where my journey began.

Nik Jiruska 2

I started feeling pain in my left hip towards the end of April. It was a fairly mild pain and it would come and go every so often. I thought it might have been a pulled muscle or a pinched nerve. This persisted for a few weeks before the pain started to get worse. Fortunately, the intense pain waited until I was done with my final exams for the spring 2013 semester. I went to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids the first time the pain in my leg became unbearable. It started in my hip and would send deep, pulsing pain down my entire leg. They drew blood and took X-rays of my back and hip, but were not able to draw any conclusions from this work. I received some pain medicine and was told to keep monitoring my leg.

The pain continued to grow worse and worse from then and I went to the emergency room two more times before I finally received an MRI. The ER doctor who was tending to me knew immediately that I had cancer after looking at the results of the MRI. This was the last thing I ever expected to hear, especially at age 20. The doctor arranged for me to go to The University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics immediately. My parents, girlfriend, and I left St. Luke’s and went straight to Iowa City in the middle of the night.

After a few days of various tests, I was officially diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma on June 4th, which also happens to be my mother’s birthday (happy birthday, right?). Although we had the official diagnosis, there was still a lot to do to find out if the cancer had spread anywhere else. After the initial blow from this horrifying diagnosis, we only received good news from then on. All of the tests revealed that the cancer was localized in my hip and had not spread to the brain, lungs, or bone marrow, which are three locations that this could likely spread to.

At this point, I started my chemotherapy treatments and talked with my oncologist, Dr. Mohammed Milhem (just “Mo” for every one who knows him), to get an idea of what the next few months would entail. I would receive chemotherapy treatments every two weeks, alternating between two and five-day treatments. I would have five rounds of chemotherapy and then have more scans to see how it reacted to the treatment. Shortly after, Dr. Benjamin Miller would perform surgery to remove the tumor. We thought I would have to receive a hip replacement, but there was a chance I could also have a bone allograft surgery depending on how the tumor reacted to the treatment. After the surgery, I would go on to receive nine more rounds of chemotherapy for 18 weeks.

It took me a few rounds of chemotherapy before I started to feel the effects. One of the effects that was the most difficult for me to grapple with was losing my hair. It was sort of my trademark and was a big adjustment in my life. However, a small price to pay, considering it would grow back eventually. Some of the other side effects I felt throughout my treatments were lightheadedness, fatigue, and nausea.

Nik Jiruska 1

The first five treatments flew by much faster than I had anticipated, and all of the sudden it was August. I had my scans and my cancer had reacted very well to the chemotherapy treatments, shrinking the tumor a lot. Dr. Miller determined that I would be able to have the bone allograft surgery. There is a longer recovery time with this route, but long-term, it would be better for my leg in terms of returning to normal functionality. Dr. Miller and his team performed a successful surgery to remove my tumor on August 21st. He determined that 95% of the tumor was dead and had been removed with clean margins. This was a big step out of the way, and everything was downhill after that.

Perhaps it is only at this point in time that I can say that it was downhill after surgery. At the time, life was very difficult. I was not able to put weight on my left leg for three months because my bone had to heal around the graft, and when you are dealing with healing bone, everyone knows this is a very slow process. This lack of mobility along with starting my final nine rounds of chemotherapy made my choice to withdraw from school for the fall 2013 semester pretty easy.

I do not know how I would have made it through those three months without my parents and girlfriend. They went out of their way to do things for me much more than they needed to. I am so grateful for them and what they did for me during this time, and during my whole fight. I primarily spent this time going back and forth between my apartment in Iowa City and my parents’ houses in Cedar Rapids, when I was not at UIHC for treatments. This was an uneventful time, to say the least. My days were filled with watching movies, Netflix, and playing videogames. It was the lazy time you fantasize about when you are living a normal, busy life, but believe me when I say this lifestyle gets old very fast.

After beating five video games and watching countless movies and TV shows, my three-month appointment with Dr. Miller arrived on November 14th and he gave me the OK to start bearing weight on my left leg. Goodbye, walker and crutches. I started practicing to walk immediately when I got back to my apartment after that appointment. It was an awkward and exciting feeling. I had, and still have, an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness that I have the opportunity to walk, because not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to keep their limb when they are diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma.

At this point, life was getting pretty good. I was walking again and only had four more chemotherapy treatments to go. However, my last few treatments were delayed because I was really feeling the negative effects of the chemotherapy and I was not meeting the required blood counts to be able to start the next round of treatment. I had to receive a handful of blood transfusions during this time to help meet the blood count requirements. Thinking about it now, these setbacks were not a big deal at all compared to what can happen when receiving chemotherapy treatments. At the time, though, it seemed awful because I was so anxious to finish and get on with my life.

Finally, January 3rd came around and it was time to go in for my final chemotherapy treatment. Unfortunately, this had to be a five-day treatment. The longest five days of my entire life, I think. My girlfriend stayed with me every night in the hospital, as she did during my treatments in the summer months, which made everything a lot more bearable because she is a very comforting person to be around. The wonderful nurses of 4JPE in UIHC presented me a beautiful cookie cake to congratulate me on my final day. I then returned to Cedar Rapids for a couple of weeks of rest, relaxation, and relief before I would return to school. I returned to UIHC three weeks after I completed chemotherapy for a bone scan and CT scan to make sure I was clean. Sure enough, the scans were clear. We were all optimistic that this would be the case, and it was truly a wonderful feeling. Time to get back to life.

I am sitting here writing this now and I do not feel bitter about having to have endured this experience at all. I have only to be thankful that I survived it. Also, as odd as it may sound, I am sort of thankful that I went through this experience because I learned a lot about myself during this time and it strengthened my relationships with those closest to me. I want to conclude my story by saying that you should never overlook any pain or odd feeling you may experience in your body. I did not do this and the early detection of my cancer may have saved my life. I also want to give thanks to my wonderful caregivers throughout this journey, including Mo, Dr. Miller, my parents, my girlfriend, and the nurses of 4JPE, 4JPW, and 2RCW.

-Nik Jiurska

Nik’s girlfriend made a surprise video for him at the completion of his chemotherapy. She got many of Nik’s friends and family involved in this video, including a celebrity or two. Watch the story from KGAN News Channel 2 and then watch the video from his girlfriend here.

 

Yell

Her face was ashen as she walked into the clinic room. Her movements were slow, and deliberate. She was clearly significantly fatigued. Not the bubbly person I knew her to be 2 weeks ago. Clearly something was amiss. I was walking to see another patient, but my critical eye could not dismiss that my patient was in dire distress. When it was her turn to be seen, I entered her realm. She was lying on the examination table with a blanket up to her chin, the blood pressure cuff was beeping a bunch of numbers at me, and the room’s neon lights were turned off to make her more comfortable. I stood at the foot of the bed and looked deep into my patient’s eyes. Examining her as I would, fully present, I noticed as my coordinator scurried to remove the cuff from her arm and get her papers together. My patient was in trouble.

I looked deep into her eyes. She was participating in a clinical trial offering a new agent for the treatment of her disease. It was clear to me that the treatment had taken its toll. I was saddened and angered by her ill physical condition, but how can you show your anger to a person you highly respect. Someone who had taken a chance to help herself and so many others by participating in a trial that might define the next treatment for the generations to come who are plagued with this disease. I asked her husband “How long has this been going on?” He replied “for the last 10 days. She has been sleeping for almost 18 hours a day.” She was fatigued to the point it was interfering with her life. “I did not want to bother you”, came slowly from her lips “I just pushed on wanting to make the treatment successful”. Ah, that common feeling of wanting to do more than what is expected. Here is what I have to say to that, to the patients who feel they do not need to reach out when they are in trouble. Don’t be silent, YELL. Let me know, make as much noise as you need to, your voice is always heard, you are alerting me to things I want to know and things I can help you with, averting a potential danger. Don’t wait, don’t ever think you are a bother, and don’t ever imagine you interrupt or annoy me; I want you to be an honest messenger to an event that I can help you get though. You are a beacon to help me, and I am the lighthouse that shines the light to help you through these troubled waters. YELL.

We talked through humor and we made a laugh of it, I guess that is the way to express your anger to those you respect. “I am such a Dodo” she said, “I just did not know that I could bother you even with this”. Her husband’s eyes filled with tears as he realized he could have intervened earlier. “It’s ok” I said, ” I’m an oncologist more is always better, let’s hope it kicked your tumor’s $@# for the trouble it has put you through”. That brought a few cackles. I saw what I needed, the relief that she had shared her trouble and that once again it was not her responsibility for the decision. It was mine. I reassured her, asked my coordinator to check on her every other day; till I knew she was out of the woods. I said “it’s not your decision any more to just not tell me, I am going to have someone call you to make sure you get out of this, safely”.

My friends, yell, when you think it does not count, yell and you will be heard. It’s my job to make sure you live your life, and not suffer unnecessarily. Yell. I want to know how I can help you. I will always be there, and with the knowledge I have I will guide you to safety.

Mo