Doctors are clueless. I can say this with authority because I was a cancer patient. But they do have moments when they sink deeply into empathy for a patient who happens to hit the right jugular vein and stops them up short—to consider the life in front of them, perhaps well lived, yet, a life that may end soon. These are the synergistic connections that can define a doctor’s path as a healer, as an advocate, or just a person to listen, to be a witness.
Clinical Flashback (Fall 2014 Intima) by Osman Bhatty, sharply and beautifully reveals how one woman’s rapid and bewildering decline into terminal illness became a seminal teaching moment for the young medical student. Beyond the person lying in a hospital bed was a life story that he could not possibly glean in the 10 minutes he expected to be there, just to draw blood from her gnarled hands. But Bhatty drew back, startled. He recognized what every doctor must: there is a history behind those old and wrinkled hands.
Patients are clueless too. I can say this with authority because I was a cancer patient. I distinctly recall the day I had my first chemotherapy treatment— feeling indescribably weird and ill—tossing my cookies immediately upon the “big push” injection—surprising the nurse who ran for a bucket. Then as I made my way home, descending the crowded subway staircase at 59th Street, I was distinctly aware of people’s impatience with me. I was holding onto the rail and moving at a pace out of sync with life’s flow, as people shook their heads in disgust, gave me the evil eye, sighing loudly. But I couldn’t help it and certainly couldn’t explain it. “I have cancer! I just had my first treatment! Get it?” As I heroically resisted tossing more cookies onto the subway platform, I felt a primal instinct to cower and protect myself.
But aren’t we always rushing— not regarding the irritating slow strangers in the subway, or even those we love? That day it dawned on me that countless, countless times, I also felt exasperated with the elderly or infirm as they slowly descending a staircase—delaying my life. I vowed to never dismiss others who seemed to block the speed of my path. They can’t tell me why. I too must respect their old and wrinkled hands.
Marcia Butler worked as a professional oboist for 25 years in New York City. She retired from the music profession in 2008 and now has a successful interior design firm. Her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, is scheduled for publication by Little, Brown and Company in January 2017. Read her piece, "Cancer Diva," which appeared in the Spring 2015 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine