Yesterday I visited my niece and was on the phone talking to my patients, sorting things for them. When I finished, she asked me, ‘Isn’t your profession stressful?’ I was quick to say NO. The conviction in my tone has taken many years to come.
I recall my early days as an oncologist and in particular, this vivacious young lady who had a relatively advanced colorectal cancer with involvement of her ovaries. She had undergone surgery elsewhere, 4 weeks prior to coming to our unit. Her abdominal wound lay open and was pouring out fecal matter and abrasive intestinal juices, consuming her skin.I could not come to terms with the unfairness of the situation, then. Why was this young lady with the most sparkling, hopeful eyes dealing with this horror? I wanted to pull her out of this mess and diligently did my best to improve her nutrition, take care of her wound and her medication. She and I would talk a lot- her dreams, her aspirations, her twins, her loving husband, her family...we became good friends! Her surgery was planned and executed well. She was recovering well and she wanted to be home to celebrate her twins’ birthday. I assured her she would. And then that day arrived, when she walked. She walked for the first time after 8 weeks. I was thrilled and went home thinking she would be out of the ICU the next day. I was going up to the hospital the next day when I got a call that she had had a cardiac arrest. I thought I had heard wrong. I ran up to the ICU and before I reached, she was gone. Pulmonary embolism had taken her away. I was distraught and I cried, rather howled, like I had lost one of my own.An elderly physician put an arm on my shoulder and said, ’ This is certainly not the last time you will have to deal with this. Don’t get attached to the outcome of what you do. Do your best but remain detached from the outcome’. Those words have stuck and I have grown since.
My focus is entirely on what I can do for the person who sits across the table and entrusts his or her life to me. I do my best to understand the problem, execute treatment, handhold them and try and do whatever I can to make the experience as seamless as possible. Cancer outcomes are never a 100%. You do lose some at the end of the day but if I have contributed to making their life easier through their suffering, I have done something worthwhile. While it is easy to be overwhelmed by these difficult situations, I need to remain detached from them so that I can do more for those who need help.
I have come a long way since, but it is not as if I am not affected by what happens to my patients, anymore. It is just that I have taken better charge of the emotional me and replaced it, not entirely, with the professional me!