Where do I begin?
Skimming her list of diagnoses, my eyes are drawn to her pancreatic cancer.
Confused, I glanced back at her age
I was not mistaken, she just turned 49.
Metastasis to her liver, polycystic ovarian syndrome, the list seemed never-ending and cruel.
Three to three and a half years, I learned from my Google search.
Is the average pancreatic cancer survival time.
I could feel my heart start to race.
For someone with so little time,
Was it okay for me to waste it?
I had just a few minutes to sort out her conditions,
To do a physical exam, and rush to present her updated medical history to my attending physician.
Do I begin by saying how sorry I was to learn about her cancer?
Do I ask how her chemotherapy treatments are going?
Do I ask how she is coping with her illnesses?
I start with, “Hello, it is very nice to meet you.”
I met her every comment with a reply of “I am so sorry, that must have been very difficult.”
After the fourth time, I began to wonder if I sound ingenuine.
Why was it so difficult for me, why did I feel so uncomfortable?
I always thought myself to be very caring for others,
I pride myself on having the skills of personability and relatability.
But this time was different.
My patient was, shockingly, one of the happiest and liveliest women I had ever met.
She told me about her three long years of chemotherapy,
And how she continued to work as a nurse in the emergency department.
Even throughout the coronavirus pandemic,
Her only days off were to drive an hour away for her cancer treatments.
For a moment, I pictured myself in her shoes.
Would I be working during a pandemic after being told I had pancreatic cancer?
I felt my face become red, hearing the all too familiar words,
“I am so sorry, that must have been very difficult.”
She laughed and asked, “What is there to be sorry about?”
I was at a loss for words.
I did not know where to even begin.
I moved on to review her vital signs with her,
Debating whether to mention her 15-pound weight gain.
After all that she had been through, did she really need me to bring up her weight right now?
She quickly ended the debate in my head,
As she joked about how she gets a pass for gaining weight
Because food finally began to taste good after being off her chemotherapy for six months.
I laughed with her and told her I completely understood where she was coming from.
But I was far from knowing what undergoing chemotherapy treatment would feel like.
From my textbooks, I could recall reading how one’s hair fell out,
I could name a few medications to treat chemotherapy-related nausea,
Other than listing adverse effects and indications, what did I really know about having cancer?
I wish I had never said I understood because that was a lie.
We continued with her physical exam,
And I asked her about her life and where she was from.
She shared with me how she lived nowhere and everywhere.
Her father was in the military, and they traveled a lot.
She told me about how her wife also worked in the medical field
and how they just found her a condo a few hours away because she started taking traveling shifts,
which meant they had to be away from each other for a while.
I bit my tongue this time,
Not “I’m so sorry” again.
I thanked her for taking the time to allow me to examine her
And I went to debrief my attending physician on our encounter.
I was relieved when the physician instantly recognized the patient,
Meaning I didn’t have to go into detail about her tragic situation.
The physician shared with me how she had known the patient for over six years,
Eagerly telling me about how incredible the patient was doing on her chemotherapy treatments.
I asked myself, was I the only one who felt extremely terrible about her condition?”
As I followed the physician into the room,
We were met with excitement and joy.
They both updated each other on their lives
While I watched what felt like two best friends reuniting again.
What I assumed to be a sad discussion on her health conditions and treatments
Turned into a happy and lighthearted conversation about how great the patient was doing.
She told the physician about her chemotherapy treatments
And was met with, “That is incredible. I would not expect anything less”.
She went on to joke about her weight gain and how food started to taste good again
And was met with, “That is wonderful, maybe take smaller steps and pace yourself.”
She told her about how her wife has moved hours away
And was met with, “Good for her! She must be so happy.”
As we left the room, I continued to wonder why I struggled so much during our encounter.
She was the happiest patient I talked to that day
Yet after reading her lengthy diagnoses,
I assumed she would be the saddest.
From watching the physician interact with her patient,
I learned an entirely new part of medicine.
While it is important to know how to manage your patient’s conditions,
To be empathetic, to advocate for, to offer support to
It is just as important to build a partnership
To be their cheerleader and to be their motivator,
To show them you can help them get through any diagnosis,
Even those with a three to three-and-a-half-year survival time.
The interactions that make me feel the most uneasy
Are the ones I learn from the most.
It reminds me there is always room for growth.
In a profession where we may feel like imposters,
I am constantly accepting that I will always be a student of medicine
That I am always learning, and that is perfectly okay.
Poetry Thursdays is an initiative that highlights poems by medical students. If you are interested in contributing or would like to learn more, please contact our editors.