The Messenger

What happens when someone reveals a difficult part of themselves when they are faced with adversity? New parts of us are expressed as we break down, or we show our teeth, when we fight or bite, or retreat in situations we wished we had never been forced to endure. I have seen all sorts of reactions that range from anger to despair. I have seen people floundering, and others drowning, trying hard to breathe as they search for a ray, a straw to hold on to. The situation is constant, unrelenting and never-ending. At times, their fear grips them, and instead of running away, they go inside to a place that is hard to see. They retreat within themselves, and they do not see or hear me. When I sit in silence next to my patient there is a myriad of things I see, and more I cannot discern. I am not sitting idly watching this, I sit present; connecting, empathizing, supporting, and waiting for something. Maybe that small flicker of courage. Today I will blog about the small things that I witness as a patient slowly finds the strength. I sometimes wish I could tell my patient, I am merely the messenger.

My patient was hunched over as if his backbone was weighed down by the burden of the news in his head. I sat close on a stool sharing the news and embracing the reactions that I have become accustomed to, when delivering cancer-related events. I needed to be present, open-minded, compassionate, and resilient as sometimes I become the target of my patients’ anger. It is never intentional on their part. I have asked myself “Have I ever been this scared? Has myself been endangered, and the ones so dear to me devastated for me, or for themselves?” I go to those times. Many things are said in such situations, that later when I recall them I wonder how one overcomes that reactivity, the impulsivity, and the urge to retaliate. I dismiss all my hurt feelings in these situations, yet I am fully aware of them as I struggle inside too. I search deeply for familiar feelings to balance the raw emotions that transpire.  I play with my own fears in my head remaining calm throughout.

My hand touches his shoulder. My voice resonating from a deep place, where my emotions are oscillating, from my own envisioned fears, from my delusions of loss and grief, from a dreadful moment I have yet to live. I talk slowly, at first, telling a small story that is very personal to me. I share that some of my own sufferings a point to reconnect perhaps. I search for my friend who is locked inside the tunnel with no light. It really does feel like I am blind sometimes aimlessly trying to find where they went. I search for small things, and as I find them, like a catalyst, allowing for the exchange of some words, sometimes questions are pummeled at me which I navigate not always with ease, but truthfully. The visit does not always end with my patient leaving with a smile.

Being present is made up of small things, that should not be dismissed as they are that ray of light that bring hope back to a patients heart; even when it does not happen in front of me, I know I have to start it. It is a privilege to be a part of a transformation, but it is exceptionally intimate to be at the start of one.

 

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

Blog Holiday!

Dear friends,

I have enjoyed writing to you every week on my blog. We have had a few guest bloggers as well and the feedback from all of you has been great. This week I will not be blogging and will start doing that every 2 weeks with an occasional guest blogger jumping in on a break. Some of my patients would say “ Mo , you just needed a blog holiday” and I guess I am finally listening.

Take Care

Mo

Do Not Touch

Observe. Let’s say this is the decision I have to communicate to my patient. I analyze the data in front of me and come to the conclusion that the best therapy is to do nothing. To leave this patient alone and watch their disease rather than interfere. Easier said than done.  I believe this is one of the hardest decisions I have to make sometimes, because we as a society have become used to the idea of doing something. Doing nothing is just not acceptable. Why is that? Pressure from guidelines and treatment algorithms, difficulty in teaching my students who are learning the concept of observation, and exceptionally hard to explain to the patient and the caregivers.

There is an itch to treat. I compare it to an itch because it is hard to ignore.  I feel it.  It builds up inside us telling us to do something. We just can’t stand there and watch. Even when the odds are low, or the statistics are not favorable. That irresistible feeling to do something comes roaring from the inside. Where does it come from? Why do we listen to it? I ask these difficult questions because sometimes I think I should just shake my head and say no, leave it alone Mo. I think your best option is to watch. Allow the disease to declare itself, and show you what you need to do. “I am a good salesman, about to sell you a crappy car” I find myself quoting quite a lot to patients as I navigate this decision. I don’t want my patients to feel abandoned or dismissed.

I have evolved in the way I treat my patients today. When I was younger I was eager to get a treatment plan in place for a patient. I believed that it was important to have that ready to help patients fight their disease. Over time I have also seen my decision-making change. I am more observant, waiting for the right moment to intervene with a therapy. I always  hope I make the best decisions for my patients. It involves engaging the patient, the family and their goals. Slowing down and trying to let the decision be made for me by observing has proven very valuable.

To truly help you as a patient, I want to be in your shoes. So let’s reverse the roles, I am now you. Faced with a difficult disease, being bombarded with knowledge that overwhelms and intimidates.  Yes I can be that person since I am vulnerable to this disease and its effects. I self-reflect to what I hold sacred as I ask the deepest parts of me. I value my quality of life, my sense of well-being, and my vitality to those around me. I do not want to interrupt my life, I do not want to be sick or out of sorts; What would change my mind to accept a treatment, cure?  If that cannot happen, then why subject me to this treatment? What’s the goal? Doctor can you please answer me? What can you possibly offer me that may make a difference to me? Why is it necessary to put me through this? Why do I have to suffer?

Important questions that I ask as the patient and should be asked as a doctor. Can you be me for a change?  In the eyes of this doctor I seek understandings in why I have to present a treatment that may not be helpful to my patients. Perhaps the best treatment is “do not touch”……..reminiscent of the oath I took of “do no harm”.

Mo

 

 

 

Impact

Brace yourself. Get ready. I am about to deliver news about the status of your cancer and whether you responded to the treatment I persuaded you to try. Wait for me, I know you are anxious. Understand that I bring you the truth. Good or bad it is disbelieving. And what I say cannot change.

When looking at the statistics associated with cancer it is more likely for me to be delivering news that my patients do not want to hear but have to. I have also shared moments of triumph and victory with many patients. The impact of this news regardless of what it is, is the truth of the situation. Say it the way it is and help the patient understand. It is my experience which has proven so very valuable. Understanding mishaps and bad decisions in medicine has been a cornerstone in improving my level of the care that I provide to each patient. This is what I teach the next generation of doctors.

What impact does seeing and telling the truth about cancer have on me? Is is the seed of my understanding that grows into a tree. It offers me a chance to improve on what I have already learned and challenge myself to do better each time. I am more than me; I am an institution I teach so many that “art” of medicine. I store all the nuances that occurred that helped shape the decision I made. I draw on so many instances where I could not find a right answer, where I saw a positive outcome in others that helped me make a better decision for each individual. “Practice makes perfect” was the old idiom.

I thank my patients for making me a better physician for the next person I have to serve. We are partners in this reality and it is the truth that nourishes our growth.

Mo