I inherited Fi. Not that I did not love her, I did. I loved how she, at age 63, could make me laugh and how she loved to recount stories of when I was just a little girl when she and my late half sister, Anne Starr, were at boarding school. Fi and Anne Starr had been best friends since 3rd grade, sharing college years and graduations, first jobs in Manhattan, and second weddings in Darien.
But unlike Anne Starr, Fi did not have any children, and I worked in radiation oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). When she was diagnosed with an aggressive and rare form of ovarian cancer, I urged her to come from Albany for a second opinion and lined her up with top gynecological oncologists, and she felt safe.
Over the next year, we had lunches or dinner at the Harvard club each time she came to Boston for a cycle of chemotherapy. It was somehow always lively and fun, as if her illness were quite secondary to our visits. She never seemed sick, or compromised, even when she was. I realized my connections as a practitioner in the Cancer Center were invaluable. Not because she got special treatment but because she felt like she was getting special treatment.
Things got worse. The cancer spread throughout her abdomen. It did not matter how bad the news was, Fi was up for a cocktail or two to forget about it. I almost had to swallow her unfortunate diagnosis whole, because she refused to address it. She swatted it away like an annoying fly, and I took her lead on how “serious” we were supposed to be; mostly, this was very low on the seriousness scale. Until July.
Dr. Penson, her oncologist, was as masterful at her denial game as she was. He too took her lead. They often talked about Proust or theater or some erudite concept that would lay the cancer diagnosis flat. I admired this for a while, but when it came to what seemed to be the end, Dr. Penson still offered her hope. “Perhaps there is just one more drug we can try?” he said as we gathered for a “family meeting” on Bigelow 7.
Fi and her sister were not giving up. Even though she was millimeters away from bleeding out due to an aggressive invasion of her tumor near the abdominal aorta. Even though they would be driving for treatments from their summerhouse in Kennebunkport, Maine.
I reluctantly but whole-heartedly went behind her back and pleaded with Dr. Penson. “Please—she will only listen to you. You know this won’t help. Please say something, anything; to let her enjoy what time she has left.
There is an amazing art to medicine. Dr. Penson went to Fi’s room and suggested she take a week in Kennebunkport to relax, and get her strength back before coming to see him in two weeks to being the “new drug.” Fi called me to tell me she was being discharged, and would head to Maine, just for a bit.
When she got to her house near the ocean, Fi managed to cook a lobster dinner for Richard and her sister, Wissy. She had white wine, and savored the salt air—happy to be away from the hospital.
The next morning, Fi woke-up went downstairs for breakfast on the porch, and after breakfast she went unconscious. The ambulance took her to hospice at the family’s wishes, and she died 6 days later, never regaining consciousness. Dr. Penson had given her the ultimate gift. Letting go, without letting go—of hope.
MAIDA BROUDO, R.T.T., M.A., has worked for more than 25 years as a radiation therapist, treating cancer patients at the National Cancer Institute, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital. She currently teaches at Harvard Medical School. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Journalism at the Harvard Extension School, and continues to do freelance health and medical journalism. She has published several medical articles in peer-reviewed journals, and has written articles for Boston Magazine, The Lazarex Cancer Foundation, and Boston Biomedical. Maida Broudo is on the editorial board of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine