Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Along the cancer ward

Cancer Institute

We've been going in and out of the PGH Cancer Institute this week to interview and examine our assigned patients for the oncology module. The place feels very homey. There is a garden in the old building's atrium visible to anyone walking along the lobby. The rooms are quiet and relaxed. Not too bad for a government-funded institution.

But I can't let go of the fact that anytime, some patients we see—a few of them already balding after many rounds of chemo—may go and leave us for good. Nothing makes one think of life more than when one is confronted with death. And we will all die—we just don't know how or when.

As we were finishing our patient reports, we were asked to reflect on our experience. We wrote:

Talking to our cancer patient was an eye-opener. We were forced to confront our own deaths and our ideas of life. We each took our time to talk to our patient, and in those private moments with her, we saw how cancer could gradually chew the life off a person, little by little, bit by bit. We were reminded of the value of family, for in those depressing moments of lazy afternoons in the hospital, our patient's son was always beside her, taking care of her, making sure she was doing well. As physicians, we, too, must take on that responsibility, no matter how limited our reach can be. We must reach out to the death and dying, and we must help them face the reality of their impending demise. We remember these lines written by the famous pyschiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:

"To live on borrowed time, to wait in vain for the doctors to make rounds, lingering on from visiting hours to visiting hours, looking out of the window, hoping for a nurse with some extra time for a chat . . . this is the way many terminally ill patients pass their time. Is it then surprising when such a patient is intrigued by a strange visitor who wants to talk to her about her own feelings, her own reaction to this state of affairs?"

We must be those strange visitors—only this time, we shouldn't look so strange anymore.

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