Behind the Mask

by Kim Johnson

April 6, 2010

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What I've Learned From My Patients

Spend a few minutes with doctors outside the exam room and you'll discover their frustrations, joys, fears, and the patients and moments they'll never forget.

As he decorates his family’s Christmas tree, Dr. David Moore’s thoughts wander to one of his first ovarian cancer patients—a church secretary who brought him handmade gifts, including several Christmas ornaments and decorations. When the woman, an only child, died, Moore ’78 continued to exchange letters and cards with her mother for several years. The last correspondence he received from her was a letter, barely legible. She was dying of pancreatic cancer. 

“I never heard from her again,” Moore says. But he’ll never forget her, either.
 
It’s easy for patients to assume physicians have it all together. They study for years to know every intricacy of the human body, every disease, how to diagnose, treat, and cure all that ails us. We put them on a pedestal, give them superhuman status, come to expect miracles.
 
But spend a few minutes with these doctors outside the examination or operating room and you’ll see a new face. They are parents, sons, daughters, soccer coaches, church members, and civic leaders. They rejoice when patients are cured, ache when they have to tell a parent “your daughter has cancer,” and mourn the loss when a patient passes.
 
“Everybody brings something special to your life,” says Dr. John Greves ’68.
 
“Hopefully, you bring something to their lives, too.”
 
 
Enriching Lives
 
“I will never forget my first testicular cancer patient,” says Dr. Eric Shreve ’02. “He was just five years younger than I was. I still remember his name. A CT scan revealed a mass in his abdomen, and I noticed during his examination that one testicle was twice the size of the other. I had to tell him what I thought was his diagnosis (metastatic testicular cancer), and then confirmed it after his surgery.
 
“He never had any visitors at the hospital and I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t help but spend a lot of my free time with him. I haven’t heard from him since he was discharged from the hospital.”
 
Pediatrician Dr. Jim Cumming ’61 remembers giving a family the worst kind of news on the worst day to give it.
 
“On Christmas Eve morning several years ago I saw a 16-month-old girl for a routine check. During her examination, it was determined she had an abdominal mass. Telling her parents the most likely diagnosis—that she had cancer—was especially difficult on that day.
 
“Fortunately, she had successful treatment and is now a beautiful young woman.”
 
Dr. Pat Healey ’76 remembers a 99-year-old man who came to see him.
 
“There was absolutely nothing wrong with him, except he was deaf and had failed his driving test because he had cataracts. The ophthalmologist didn’t want to perform surgery on his cataracts until someone had checked him over.
 
“I had a slow day that day, so I put some hearing aids in his ears and just let him talk. He was amazing. The history that I was able to get from him of what he lived through was truly awesome.”
 
“Occasionally you meet someone who drastically changes your perspective on an issue,” explains Dr. Karl Grimmer ’03. “My patient was a young woman who had lost her job and health insurance. She was forced to quit taking care of her ulcerative colitis, had a terrible complication from her disease, and ended up having emergency surgery late one night. She never made it out of the ICU despite our very best efforts.
 
“Her death really touched me. She was only six months younger than me. She had the same disease that I do. From that point on, I became a believer that health care is for everyone. As a society, we should fight for people like her.”
 
 
Becoming a Parent
 
There are times when a physician’s knowledge and experience get in the way, and others when they are no help at all.
 
Dr. Craig Higgs ’99 laughs as he reflects on the birth of his son: “In the delivery room, I was happy, I was excited, my first child was being born—it’s the dad sort of stuff that everybody goes through. But having resuscitated newborns and been on that side of things, I was also thinking ‘Okay, now—scream! Cry! Come on, let’s go!’
 
“Part of being a pediatrician is talking to parents about how to take care of a new baby—some of the things that usually come up, what to get scared about, when to call me. I also tell them very honestly that, when we took our son home, all that stuff went out the window. He hiccuped and I’d think, Wait a minute—he’s never hiccuped before. My medical brain knows it’s okay. But this was my own child. Of course we got worried. Once you have been a parent for a while you get a better understanding of what’s normal for your child versus something that’s really wrong.”
 
 
When Doctors Love Their Patients
 
“My father died three years ago. As a physician I knew that he was going to die and why,” Dr. Moore says. “But as a son, I never wanted to say goodbye and was frustrated that I could do nothing to circumvent the inevitable. I have said many goodbyes in my lifetime, but nothing could prepare me for the loss of my Dad.”
 
Dr. John Roberts’ mother died of emphysema after years of smoking.
 
“That was a tough one to watch,” Roberts ’83 says. “I had witnessed firsthand in my career what smoking could do to people—slow suffocation. I had spent most of my adult life admonishing her to stop smoking. I became more and more angry the sicker she became.
 
“Hearing my mother beg me to help her breathe while knowing there was nothing I could do was the toughest thing I’ve had to bear as a doctor. The best I could do as her power of attorney was to make sure she got enough morphine to try to ease her suffering. It’s still a challenge for me every time a smoker comes to see me in my office. I try to impart to them the pain and suffering they and their families are likely to endure if they continue to smoke. I wish I could implant into their heads the memories and emotions I felt as I watched my mother take her last breath.”
 
 
More than just Medicine
 
“In 1992, our oldest granddaughter, then a little more than four years old, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and was given three months to live,” Dr. Hoyt Miller ’59 remembers. “I had actually seen her in the office. I did a blood count on her and my lab tech said, ‘You need to come look at this slide.’ It turned out to be a neuroblastoma, a tumor that develops in the adrenal gland. She was in very, very, very bad shape.
 
“She underwent surgery to try to remove the tumor, but only a portion could be removed. She then underwent total body radiation and numerous rounds of chemotherapy on a very aggressive protocol that was new at the time. She eventually underwent a bone marrow transplant.
 
“Following the bone marrow transplant, she did not do well. She was in total isolation. We could only view her through a glass partition. It was obvious to me that she was dying. All of the doctors attending her had said that there was nothing more to be done.
 
“It was at that time we called the church we attended. She had been on the prayer concern list—even though her parents didn’t attend that church—and a prayer chain was set up. Within about 48 to 72 hours she turned around. She survived the ordeal and she is currently a junior in college.
 
“As a physician you like to be in control. You like to make the correct diagnosis. You like to prescribe the correct therapy and you like to see the end result being good and positive. You like to be able to control the situation all the way through.
 
“But in that situation, I just felt like I had no control. After her bone marrow transplant, basically nobody had any control.
 
“It was through that experience I realized that there’s more to medicine than just being the physician practic-ing medicine. That turned out to be quite an experience for all of us. It certainly drove home to me the power of prayer.”

 


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