Understand

Death does not put an end to everything. It inspires feelings, questions, and gives perspective. People ask me how I feel when I lose patients. Do I feel sad, angry and defeated? I have walked with my patients down this path and returned alone. It does not end there. Death does not end things. Death is not the last thing.

From each patient I keep something with me. Patients help me gather knowledge that flows stronger than a river and wisdom that propels others who have to walk that path. The path remains uncertain but the journey of those we lost refines and paves the way. There is a certain enlightenment that comes from this that I hope to make you all perceive. What started small in the beginning, with the trust of a few, has become an organic tangible construction of the science needed to move us forward. 

 “A bend in the road, is not the end of the road, unless you refuse to take the turn”. Families always take the turn. What’s the alternative? To go on grieving what could have been? Do we live in our memories? When you meet the loved ones of a lost patient, trudging their way through the rest of life, do you wonder what drives them? I am always touched and humbled by what they say amidst their sadness and fear, their feelings of loss and grief. They say prayers for other cancer patients, and a shout out to me, “You go get this, Mo”, “You figure this out”, and “You find out why?” These words push me on, make me get up, make me see what still needs to be done. 

Memories ebb and flow rubbing into our wounds and heightening our suffering. At times they gather together, like a swarm of locusts they invade, leaving nothing behind: a loss of meaning and loss of purpose, a desolate place. Out of it emerges a new beginning, a new start, that puts the bounce back into our feet and we are alive again. Understand, that is how we make our memories live within us without their crippling effect, and those we have lost can show the way for all of us to succeed.

Permission

“You’re a good man”, said my patient as he hugged me. He was tapping me kindly on my back. He had waited for over an hour to see me. Wheelchair bound I was saddened when I walked in to see him. I was realizing the end was near as the quote of the series Dr. Who flashed through my mind…when The Doctor says….” I am not a good man, but I am not bad man, I am definitely not a president, or a general or an officer…….I am in idiot with a box and a screwdriver, helping out when I can, learning.” The obvious part is that I am helping out when I can, and the rest of the truth is that I am an idiot passing through with the knowledge I have acquired, and learning as I go. I discovered that my patients have been teaching me something they do very well; teaching me how to die. Here he sat in the wheelchair, he looked ready. What was he waiting for?

I have acquired an innate understanding of death. I recognize it, I accept it, and I too am scared of it. It is a stretch to talk about death like we do about life. Death is more inevitable than life itself yet we tend to dismiss it. We focus on life, and on the aspects that are important to develop a career, an education, a pathway and a life, a relationship and a way to replicate ourselves and bring in more lives to this world. But, as I talk to so many who are ready to transition to death, I tend to think of it as a suspension. That is another story for another day. This man was a little different he made a trip to see me, but I am hiding the ending behind the veil, because it is what is making my statement more powerful. He is making me talk about death to you as intimate, as something there, and maybe we should not be dismissing it. We tend to not want to embark on the journey that challenges our intellect or our comfort, or our narcissism. We do not talk about it objectively or even humorously like we do about a thrilling story in Halloween, not every day, not all the time. We do not talk about it with a bit of comradery, or some spirituality, or some vulnerability? “It” is the way we observe it. Why are we talking about Dr. Who?

He sat there. Haggard. I told him it was time to die. That he should be made “Hospice”, that his cancer was everywhere, and that there is nothing I could do. I was sure of that. My mind fighting the words, “We have had this conversation……why did you come?” He gracefully accepted and hugged me. All the people in the room did that. Why so thankful I thought? How could death today not be so familiar to me, I say goodbye to so many. The relationship being re-defined. The news came the next morning, he died early morning peacefully surrounded by his family. I make sure I always ask how. My heart goes out to his family and I was sad. He knew what he was doing. He signaled that he was dying, as if he wanted permission to give in to its call. He wanted to not let me down, not let his family down he was fighting for those around him. Once the news was out, he let go.

I am just passing through, learning from those who travel into the suspension they go.

Mo

Perception

Clinic ended in the usual way. A daughter and her father came to have a closure visit. The Cancer Center was quiet as I made my way to the room where they were waiting. I walked in and we hugged each other deeply remembering the moments we had spent and the many struggles we had been through. My closure visits are usually at the end of my clinic visit, but there was something different about this one.  She looked down as she talked, her voice strained and her mind rattled as she spoke. There were questions this time on what happened, on why it happened and “please explain it to me?” She continued, “where is science to answer these questions, what is pain? And how is it that we don’t know more about what to do?” She sobbed “I saw things I did not want anyone else to see”. She re-iterated “don’t want anyone to see, things that have changed the reality around me”.  Her mother had died, her close friend, her confidant. “When my mother was coming for her chemotherapy, people would say to me I am sorry, and I would look at them and say “sorry? This was a chance to hang out with her, to be with my mom, to lie in the bed and bond as we watch television and shared our stories”.

This was a very young woman who got exposed to death at an early stage in her life. She wanted to talk. Her speech was pressured, she touched my heart. No, she penetrated ripping right through. She vividly described all the stages that she had witnessed as her mother became acutely ill, her voice was shaky, and I could hear her unrelenting grief as she told her story. She had met death, and it had changed her. She told me of how when someone asked her “how she was?” She would just look at them as if they had asked her something that did not make sense. They should rather ask her who she was, because death had left its mark on her, embedded itself in her history and future. Death had become a fact for her, a part of her life now intimate in the details she shared of what it really meant to lose someone dear. She did not search for words, she found them and the courage to share them with me for which I was honored to receive them. In this discussion, many doors opened as we settled and submitted. Her mother was so unique as her cancer was a rare diagnosis with sparse cases and documentation on its treatment. The husband looked at me and asked “did you learn something from this?”

I explained to them both that to me each human that I treated was like a piece of a larger puzzle I was trying to solve. I was trying to connect the jigsaw pieces collaborating with researchers in Iowa and in the nation. How each person gave us clues and a wealth of information that was used to create a network for us to better understand what at this moment I was having a hard time explaining. She asked me why is that? I explained that her mother’s sarcoma diagnosis was rare and that progress in these cancers was slow. I explained that the knowledge would eventually come to explain it but it did not exist now. In Iowa we have built a resource that is proving powerful in bringing researchers together uniting them in a common cause to decipher the cancer code. I have often quoted it as being like a coral reef in an ocean that is formed slowly over time, but allows the development of ecosystems of different living organisms that can thrive and be nourished.

Her questions continued, and I was stunned at the depth of their feelings, their attachment, and their grief. She traversed the mindset that death is something out there to fear, avoid, kick and scream about, the perception of the masses. To her it was present, it was unexplained and it was intimately associated with her recent loss. They were accepting the ambiguity and mystery around the other side. Our human bodies are vulnerable, and our lives are delicate. And death is bigger than life because it is inevitable and certain. She demanded answers.

They thanked me and made their way to leave. At the doorway, she paused; her tears began to flow again. As I sit tonight I ponder that image. How many of us stand at the doorway of death not fully understanding its implications in neither our lives nor the provoking questions that erupt when it happens.

-Mo

 

Invitation

“Just tell him he has more than 4 weeks to live”, her eyes welled up with tears. I reached for the tissues that are so conveniently placed in every room in the cancer center. He had sarcoma in his lungs, and the surgeon could not remove them after taking him to the operating room. He had recovered remarkably from the surgery and had come in to the office to talk, perhaps seeking re-assurance. He said “I keep thinking about my grandson, and I want what’s between my ears to stop thinking so hard about it”. I handed him the tissue now because he had started to cry. A common occurrence in my clinic, that emotions are powerfully shared. We all know we are eventually going to die; the acuity of the realization always hurts. I reassured him and his wife. He likely would not die in 4 weeks, and I had treatments up my sleeve. He was receiving an invitation from death, that he was next. How do you as a human being understand that you have to die at some point and reach acceptance? If death had a language how would it knock at our doors?

He left feeling better that he had come, I was glad to relay to him that death, albeit near, was not as imminent as he thought it was.

Events in my clinic remind me of a lot of death. It hovers around me like a teacher, not an enemy, and it speaks a language we are young to understand as humans. I want to share it more openly because many are frightened to talk about it. I might be very comfortable with the notion of dying, but in me there is a unique struggle that I share with everyone who gets a call from cancer to die. For starters they meet me and they begin a journey each one different. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope the richness of colors, shapes, beauty and vitality that the human spirit brings with it. There is also the fear, the aloneness and the uncertainty of the how? When? And why? Questions I have yet to answer accurately. I had a conversation with a colleague as I waited for the bus to go home. She talked to me about a patient that just wanted me to call him. He had transitioned to hospice. She told me he was so appreciative with the decisions we made that had given him 4 years of survival. Of course I will call him I told her. Many thoughts as I bobbed up and down on the bus, it has a way of percolating thoughts, having someone else steer you to where you need to go so you get to focus on other things. I have often told my patients, sit back, I am the bus driver. It might be rocky but I will drive with what I know.

How do we end this conversation? Well consider it a beginning of a deep understanding of a process of life we choose not to acknowledge until we receive the invitation to understand it. We focus on health, love, family and life. We do not talk about an inevitable process called death. It might be very lonely sending us invites welcoming us to the next process. It is sobering to discover that which many fear in their hearts teaches a deeper wisdom that is appreciated. I too travel to my own, and I wait for an invitation to join those who have already passed.

 

“Stay out of trouble”

“Nice to meet you Dr. Mayhem” he said mispronouncing my last name, but he had me smiling. “A pleasure to meet you too” I replied to my newly formed friend. In the background of the clinic, the laughter this word created reaches out to my depths and pulls out something I have longed to share. If you have seen me in clinic many times, my closing statement to each of my patient is “stay out of trouble.” It’s like my signature. I want to blog about what that actually means and why I say it.

I will start by asking “the” difficult question. One you all know but maybe have never dared to ask. When a patient first gets diagnosed with cancer, be it melanoma or sarcoma or any other type, where do you think their mind goes? In my practice I have watched as my patients go to thoughts of death first. This is exceptionally vivid when I am the one who introduces this particular thought to them.  There is an awkward silence that usually follows. It is not awkward for me as I am the one being silent. This is broken on many occasions by a deep sadness, an overwhelming emotion that fills tears in everyone’s eyes who are watching. I create the space in time to accommodate and acknowledge this feeling. Silence has an end, it is not never-ending. My patients get into “trouble” trying to understand their cancer, their disease, their plan and how it is to be executed.  They are never left to do this alone. I will admit that initially they are lead to believe they are.

Truth has a responsibility of being clear, sharp and honest. Telling a patient that they have a terminal cancer is no easy task. Yet I do that daily, begging the question from the observers of “how do you do this?”  To answer this statement of “stay out of trouble”, when asked to do the same, I end up saying “no I will not” because I am at the heart of it.  I have marveled at the psychology of the irrational fear of death that drives us towards a helplessness that cripples us to give up. I journey deep into these “hot waters” pulling my patients out of an irreversible outcome. No one does it better than the person on this journey and I end up learning so much from each of my friends as they face this certainty. So I walk beside them and find myself saying simply “stay out of trouble”.

I usually say it as I leave the room; I point and stare deep into my friend’s eyes as I say it. I mean it; it is a real, reflex almost. I fought hard to get them out of the tribulation that they are being faced with. I want them to live fully and embrace what moments they have left. As important, I also point at those around them reminding them of the diamond that sits amongst them, that soon they may be forced to part with.

Stay out of trouble my friends.

Mo