I remember the first time I witnessed a physician lose himself. We were on morning rounds for the Gastrointestinal Oncology Service, the floor known for its too-close-to-the-flame dance with death. The maintenance of hope was a daily trek through Himalayan heights.
On this day, a thirty-something father of two was being bested by pancreatic cancer. He was suffering, in pain and dying too young.
I can’t remember exactly what it was that set our attending oncologist off that morning (as if a young father dying of cancer wasn’t itself enough—it was hard to maintain perspective up on that floor). But someone’s question forced him to confront the limits of what he could do for our patient. A switch flipped and this generally affable oncologist shouted at us all.
“I don’t fucking know!”
We all stepped back a few inches. Clearly, he needed space. His daily dose of the near-death threshold had been breached. And I thought of him immediately while reading Jake Minor’s piece “The Crash,” (Field Notes, Spring 2017).
Jake’s narrative initially resonated for me because it aligned so closely with my own experience confronting my father’s kidney failure. The blurred boundary of discerning parent from child as our full range of primal emotions combust was particularly resonant.
“I thought we could fix it.” Yes. That day, our attending had been thinking, hoping and wishing we could fix it, too.
“I thought I could fix it.” Yes. Our attending had tread these terminal waters holding out hope that HE could fix it. He could save this young man. He could keep a family intact so that two children could grow up with their father, as Jake’s thirteen year-old sister would not.
“I thought the doctors could fix it…” Yes. Our attending had been saddled with that Herculean feat, too. Doctors fix things. Doctors must especially repair things that just don’t mesh with what our linear sense of living looks like. We need doctors to make life right again.
“Not everything could be fixed.” In this moment on rounds, as in Jake’s first moment of realization that his father would not be fixed, our attending angrily conceded defeat.
How do we prepare medical providers for the minefield that awaits them? As Jake merges his painfully personal life-lesson with his medical training, we catch a glimpse of how his father’s legacy—a bittersweet parting gift—will shape him as a future compassionate physician.
Jennifer Abcug is a psychotherapist in New York City where she maintains a private practice focused on women’s life transitions. Formerly, she worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center providing counseling to patients and families. While there, she experienced the privilege of being present with others facing the most personal of crises. Along with this came a daily dose of humility and a grounding in shared humanity. Writing is how Abcug makes meaning of bearing witness. Her non-fiction essay “Daddy” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
© 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine