Live Long and Prosper

I was sitting at lunch with a friend today when she leaned over to check her phone messages and discovered the sad news that Mr. Spock, sometimes also known as Leonard Nimoy, had passed away due to complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  She looked up at me and said wistfully, “He was my first girlhood crush.”  To which I replied, “Mine too.”  In 1966, while my thirteen year old contemporaries swooned over the mop headed Beatles, I was madly in love with a guy with chiseled features, a low pitched but perfectly modulated voice, and above all, pointy ears.  I found him irresistible.

Some girls want a boy who will bring them candy hearts on Valentine’s Day and flowers for their birthday. Others prefer a tougher nut to crack.  To Spock’s adoring fan girls, he represented the latter, the “strong silent type” whose deep human emotions lurked well behind that cool Vulcan exterior. Secretly we all believed that we were the one, and of course the only one, who could penetrate Spock’s personal deflector shields to get to that emotional reactor core.  The challenges would be great, but so would be the rewards. Since Spock was significantly older, and entirely unavailable, we turned our attentions to the dark quiet boy in the back row of math class who sat scowling at his paper, pressing his pencil lead so hard into the paper that it snapped off.   He was no Spock, but he would have to do.

My girlfriends and I have hopefully long outgrown our attraction to emotionally unavailable men–candy hearts and flowers are most welcome these days.  Leonard Nimoy tried for a time to outgrow his identification as Mr. Spock, even titling his first autobiography “I Am Not Spock.”  He became a writer, a director, a poet, a photographer, and even at times a very bad singer, but despite his many accomplishments his admiring Trekkies continued to flock to Star Trek conventions to get a glimpse of the man with the pointed ears.  In later life, Nimoy embraced the character that made him famous—when you have become a cultural icon, resistance, as they say, is futile.

What is it now, nearly fifty years later,  that still draws us to the Vulcan mindset, where war, and rage, and yes, even passion were considered “highly illogical?”  Perhaps it is a longing for a simpler world and an earlier time, where each one hour television episode had a story with a beginning, an ending, and a moral and no one had any trouble figuring out who the good guys were.  Spock stood at Captain Kirk’s shoulder as a moral compass, a conscious reminder to put thought before action and to behave ethically towards all species.  We could all use a little Spock these days.  Leonard Nimoy, you will be deeply missed.

This Rough Magic

Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure

Prospero, The Tempest, Wm. Shakespeare

Two weeks ago today, we lost our big male deerhound Magic.  It should not have been any surprise—he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in August and from the looks of his echocardiogram August 8th, his days were numbered.  He was with us for over ten years, a long life for a giant hound.  But the finality of death is always a surprise, isn’t it?

Can dogs perceive tragedy in their lives?  Do they grieve as we do?  If so, Magic had grief aplenty.  Acquired as a four month old puppy with his half-sister Angelina, he was fine until at six months, he fractured a metatarsal bone taking a corner too fast, and after surgery to pin the shattered bone he spent six weeks in a cast.  He recovered just fine, well enough to finish his championship at 18 months without a trace of a limp to suggest his prior injury.  From the time he was a puppy, we called him The Dog Who Never Did Anything Wrong.  He never got sick, never barked, never growled, and never EVER had an accident in the house.  Following the example of our older male Izzy, he was a friend to all—humans, dogs and cats.  Well maybe once he chased a horse, but after the embarrassment of being chastised, he never did it again.  He was a homebody, afraid of fireworks and thunder and lightning, but as long as he had his family about him, he bore no complaint.  When his sister and constant companion Angelina passed, he clearly had a period of sadness, but bounced back quickly.  But when we lost Izzy and in rapid succession the little dog Jack to old age, Magic lay down on the carpet in the family room between the coffee table and the chairs, head between forelegs, and there he stayed.  He ate his meals, and went out twice a day to do his business (“whether he needed to or not!” we joked).  But the exuberance and sense of humor that characterizes the deerhound personality was gone.

When we sold our home in San Diego in October, and decided to move to New Mexico, Magic was the dog we worried about the most.  Given his heart condition, we weren’t sure that he could make the transition to altitude and cold weather.  We worried and fretted and even considered putting him to sleep, but in the end, since he wasn’t in any pain, we loaded him, the two girl deerhounds and the little rescue Yoda into the van and off we went.  Our biggest fear was that we would have to find a veterinarian somewhere along Interstate 40 to do what we hadn’t been able to bring ourselves to do before we left.  But the big dog surprised us.  Here in Santa Fe, he seemed to take a new lease on life.  Suddenly he was interested in his surroundings—he ran, he played, and he discovered where the bunnies were hiding in the culvert.  He patrolled the fence line at sunset, watching for coyotes.  He assumed the role of pack leader for the first time in his life.  His two female consorts adored him, and he was The Man.  And, like a family member of any patient diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to have magical thinking:  first, let’s see if he makes his tenth birthday!  He did.  Then, let’s see if he makes Thanksgiving, when the kids come home!  He did.  And then, jeepers, maybe he’ll see Christmas, and even another New Years!  He did.  So then I began thinking about his eleventh birthday, next October.  As I said, death is always a surprise.

As we get older, each loss hits harder.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about this these last two weeks.  When we are children, the family dog seems to live forever.  He’s there when we start kindergarten, then junior high, then high school.  He comforts us when we’re sad.  Our lives, and his life, while not equivalent, are at least proportionate.  But as we age, the lifespans of our pets seem to shrink.  Now that I am 61, Magic’s life seems to mine a mere blink of the eye.  He was there, beside my bed, every night for ten years.  And now he is gone, and I’ll never again curse under my breath as I trip over him in the dark, and my life is much the worse for that.

Rest in peace, Ch. Caerwicce’s This Rough Magic, October 15, 2004—January 25, 2015.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart and you shall see that, in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”  Kahlil Gibran

Medicine at the Crossroads

 

        “When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”    Pollyanna

 

I try not to spend too much time on Facebook, but it’s always been a good way to keep up with “friends” in the Scottish Deerhound world.  The deerhound, being a rare breed, tends to link people across the country, and indeed the world, who have similar interests.  Lately though, the deerhound people haven’t been discussing dogs much.  Instead, they’ve been discussing their terrible experiences with the world of medicine.  One owner described being admitted through the emergency room of her local hospital for stroke-like symptoms.  By the evening of her second day of admission, she complained that she had not yet been seen by a physician.  Another complained that a family member had just been diagnosed with Type I diabetes, but was initially given an appointment with an endocrinologist in six weeks—completely unacceptable in this situation by any standard of care.  I am of course compelled by pride to speak up and defend my profession, but not without an increasing sense of embarrassment for what used to be considered a noble calling.

After I published my piece on the fatal shooting of Dr. Michael Davidson, I was contacted by Carey Goldberg, reporter and co/host of CommonHealth (http://commonhealth.wbur.org/) and asked what struck me the most about the nearly 200 comments left on the essay when it was picked up by KevinMD.com.  Here is what I replied, “There were several reasons that Dr. Davidson’s death hit me particularly hard, even though I never met him.  One reason was that I trained at the Harvard teaching hospitals, Beth Israel for Internal Medicine and MGH for Radiation Oncology, so this hit close to “home” especially with my daughter being there.  But more importantly, I come from a medical family–grandfather was a dentist, father (now 89 years old) is a world renowned plastic surgeon–and in my lifetime of 61 years, I have seen the sad decline of public affection and respect for physicians.  When I was a child, people would stop me on the street to tell me how wonderful my father was.  Now, when I sit in on conversations among people who do not know I am an MD, I hear nothing but derision if not outright hatred.  There are many, many more people, as evidenced by the response to my blog piece, who feel slighted not only by “the system” but also by their physicians.”

And why not?  Articles such as this, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/business/medicare-payments-surge-for-stents-to-unblock-blood-vessels-in-limbs.html on the front page of the New York Times continue to erode patients’ faith in their physicians to “do the right thing.”  Patients despair when they cannot get appointments to see their doctors in a timely fashion and when they are seen, that their doctors don’t spend enough time with them or explain things to them.  They despair over the cost of care in increasingly difficult economic times. But doctors are in despair also, at the ever increasing bureaucracy of medicine, the insurance conglomerate which makes documentation, authorization and billing a nightmare, the takeover of large segments of medicine by for profit corporations and the heightened expectations for positive outcomes fueled in part by misleading advertising by those same corporations.  Many have come to feel that the sacrifices, both personal and economic, that they made in order to go to medical school were just not worth it.

I do not pretend to have any answers to the multiple crises that contributed to the death of Dr. Davidson, or the current climate in which doctors and patients must function.  I wish I did. But I do have a request for both my patients and others, and my physician colleagues, as well as my Facebook friends and the media.  Let us try once again to see the good in one another again, and not just the bad.  We’re all human, and at some point we are all going to get sick.  For better or for worse, we depend on one another.

In Memoriam–Dr. Michael Davidson

In 1994, I was working at my first radiation oncology job in San Diego at Grossmont Hospital when I came into work to hear disturbing news.  One of my colleagues in medical oncology, a compassionate man known for his gentle nature, had stayed late at the Cancer Center the evening before to finish up paperwork.  With his back to his ever open door, he sat at his desk never once considering that he was in danger.  A disgruntled relative of a former patient surprised him from behind, and beat him viciously over the head and body causing broken bones and contusions, and leaving him for dead.  He managed to call for help, and he survived after spending two weeks in the hospital.  He returned to his practice of treating cancer patients after a long convalescence—after all, it was his calling in life.  He died many years later, suddenly at age 69.  I do not know if that beating years earlier contributed to his early death but the knowledge of it certainly changed my life.  I worked late, and was alone in many offices at night after that, but I remained cautious and vigilant about security, never again taking safety for granted.

Yesterday I got a hasty text message from my daughter, who is a second year internal medicine resident at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  She told me that a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a fellow Harvard teaching hospital, had been shot at work and that the hospital was on lock down.  She didn’t know how much was in the news yet, but wanted to let me know since I had trained and worked at these hospitals.  I was as shocked as she was, but I should not have been.  The doctor, Michael Davidson, was a highly respected young cardiovascular surgeon—a rising star in his career, and a husband with three children at home.  The gunman, having sought out Dr. Davidson, fired two shots at close range before retreating to an exam room and taking his own life.  Dr. Davidson was given immediate medical attention by his colleagues at his own hospital, one of the top trauma centers in Boston.  He died of his injuries late last night.  As it turns out, the shooter, Stephen Pasceri, had no history of violence and his gun was licensed.  But he did have a history of dissatisfaction with the “medical system” and sadly his mother had been a patient of Dr. Davidson’s, and had passed away two months ago.  Not much has been said in the news about her, but such is the nature of cardiovascular surgery—these doctors do not operate on healthy patients and not every outcome is successful.

When I visited the Hope Institute in Jamaica in 2013, I saw many patients dying of cancer, without the benefits of affordable chemotherapy, state of the art radiation therapy and even without a readily available supply of morphine.  But I did not see anger, in the patients or their relatives, who were cared for under the loving guidance of Dr. Dingle Spence.   Here in America, quite the opposite is true: we have come to believe that every disease is curable, that every outcome should be positive, and that death, in the words of Dylan Thomas, shall have no dominion.  Most of us, however do not take to the wards fully armed, looking for our doctors. Today I am in despair for his wife, for his children, for the surgical residents he would have taught, and for the thousands of patients that Dr. Davidson could have helped if his life had not been taken.

When we graduate from medical school, we take the Hippocratic Oath, which in the modern version not only exhorts us to heal the sick but to exhibit warmth, sympathy and understanding.  Let our patients and their families extend those same traits to us as we complete our daily rounds.  Let our clinics and hospitals be places of healing, and not of killing.  Please, please let us do our jobs.

Addendum January 22, 2015.  This was submitted by a colleague in the Comments section but I want to bring it forward to the actual page.  Please take the time to read and consider signing.

Dear colleagues,

The violent death in Boston of Dr. Michael J. Davidson, an inspiring cardiac surgeon who devoted his career to saving lives and improving the quality of life of every patient he cared for, is a senseless and horrible tragedy.

There was an incident in the past where a patient at a VA hospital made a threat to shoot a physician.

VA physicians are federal employees. Federal employees have enhanced legal protection against violence. The threat of violence toward a federal employee by itself is illegal. Police officers were able to conduct an investigation and speak with the patient. Once the patient understood that the threats could lead to prison, the volatile situation was defused.

Laws protecting federal employees against violence provide an additional tool to help direct an individual away from violence. Unfortunately, this protection does not extend universally to all healthcare providers.

The White House has a “crowd-sourcing” system where the executive office reviews proposals with at least 100,000 signatures obtained within a 30 day period.

http://wh.gov/i220E asks that the legal protections against violence currently provided to federal employees be extended to all healthcare providers.

While no law reduces risks to zero, our effort would be well worth the energy if it could prevent even one senseless death.

Please take a moment to sign this petition, and consider spreading the word. Everyone can sign this petition including your friends and family.

Thanks.

The Curbside Consultation

Recently a friend of my husband’s in San Diego had a mammogram which showed some suspicious microcalcifications in her right breast.  She underwent a stereotactic biopsy which revealed ductal carcinoma in situ, the earliest form of breast cancer also known as Stage 0 breast cancer.  This type of cancer is non-invasive and does not metastasize, however, if untreated it can progress or recur as a more serious type of breast cancer, so at the very least excision of the abnormal area is indicated, and in some cases radiation and/or mastectomy are necessary.  My husband asked if I would speak to her regarding her breast cancer, and somewhat reluctantly I said yes.

 

Why reluctantly, you might ask.  Isn’t that the nice thing to do?  I said to my husband, “I think it’s a mistake to do consultations over the phone.  I have no access to the mammograms or pathology report, and I cannot examine her.  These things are important to have and do to give someone an informed opinion about her case.”  He said, “But can’t you just talk to her a little bit and recommend a surgeon, and maybe give her a bit of information about radiation therapy?”  I agreed to do it.  A few days later we connected by phone.

 

Having practiced in San Diego for twenty one years, and having a major interest in breast cancer, I know every surgeon in San Diego and Riverside counties who specializes in breast cancer.  Likewise, every radiation oncologist and medical oncologist.  I am a virtual referral encyclopedia—tell me where you live and I will tell you where to go.   In this case I recommended the surgeon whom I would choose to operate on ME, if I had breast cancer.  Same thing for radiation oncology.  I did this for my husband’s friend, and we discussed her case at length.  Because of her relatively young age, excision alone was a bad choice, so we discussed the pros and cons of excision plus radiation versus simple mastectomy with or without reconstruction.  At the end of the conversation she thanked me, and then mentioned that there were actually TWO areas in the breast that were biopsied and were positive, and they were not particularly close together.

 

That little fact, which I would have known if I had had her pathology report and her mammograms in front of me, changes everything.  If a woman has multifocal disease, there is a good probability that she may be better off removing the breast.   I backtracked and covered that point, but I worried that I had made an anxiety provoking situation much worse by confusing a new breast cancer patient.  In the end, she sought the care of an excellent breast cancer surgeon, and I know she will be fine.  But I have the lingering feeling that in trying to do the nice thing, I did the wrong thing.

 

Think of this when you stop your doctor friend on the street to ask about a friend or relative who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.  Curbside consultations do no one any favors.  If you or a friend or relative need an opinion, get an INFORMED opinion—present to the consulting physician with your history, your radiology, your lab work, your pathology and your body to be examined.  Then, and only then, you will be assured that the recommendations that you receive are the ones you should truly follow.  It could save your life.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

“I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.”  Rocky

On Saturday night, thirteen horses were saved from kill buyers at Mike’s Auction in Mira Loma, California, by three rescue organizations—Forgotten Horses Rescue, Inc,  HiCaliber Horse Rescue and Joey’s Home Animal Rescue.  Here in the United States, we consider horses companion animals.  We don’t eat horses.  In other countries, that is not the case.  When a horse is used up—too many losses at the race track, or no longer fit for work, or too old, too lame or too tired to be useful, they go to auction.  Despite the withholding of federal inspection funds in 2007, when horse slaughter was essentially banned in the US–funds were restored in 2011, and three states including Missouri, Iowa and New Mexico have been trying to reinstate their slaughterhouses.  The result of the 2007 ban has been the unintended consequence that horses are now shipped to Mexico for slaughter, transported in crowded railway cars without food or water, and then, if they even survive the journey, they are bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers.  This is not death with dignity befitting a once beloved family pet, or a money winning race horse.  But it happens at Mike’s.  Once a month, on a Saturday night.   Do not blame the auction house—they, like all of us, are just doing business.  Blame the folks who treat animals as commodities instead of living sentient creatures.

My old horses, Dash and Norman, are now 30 and 27 years old.  They have lived a good life—one, Dash has been a children’s show horse since he was three years old.  He is lame as can be, but his old eyes still light up if you put a small child on his back and lead him around.  The other, Norman, was born and bred at Disneyland where a small breeding band of pure white Lipizzaners is kept to pull Cinderella’s carriage.   He didn’t take much to pulling a carriage, and was pulled off duty to be trained under saddle.  At age 14, the sorrel Quarter Horse Dash became my son Brandon’s show horse, competing in local western horse shows.  When he retired from the show ring, he became my trail horse, until finally by age 22 he could no longer be ridden without fear of stumbling.  Norman became my 12 year old daughter’s dream horse—trained to fourth level dressage, but plagued by a congenital bone lesion in his left stifle.  He too was retired a few years ago.  Both horses lived at home in my backyard as pampered pets until we moved to New Mexico in October.  They are now under the care of Dash’s former trainer in Del Mar, California, where they will remain at least through the winter.  I miss them terribly.

I never thought much about horse rescue until I got a letter in the mail five years ago from The Horses of Tir Na Nog, a San Diego horse rescue group.  Apparently, unbeknownst to me, my husband had given them some money.  He is not known for his charitable heart, so I figured he must have been on to something worthwhile and important.  So I kept giving them money, and then one day I saw a Facebook page that made me feel like I had been punched in the stomach—for Forgotten Horses Rescue, started by Trish Geltner when a starved horse named Spero came into her care.  Spero didn’t make it, but Trish vowed that he would never be forgotten, and she has kept her word.  Then I found HiCaliber, founded by Michelle Cochran, a formal San Diego Animal Control officer who got involved when she intercepted an auto accident involving a former racehorse.  Before that, she had “only” been involved in rescuing much maligned pit bulls.  It took me a long time, but I have finally realized that not every equine is treasured and treated to a loving life of retirement.  So I am doing my best to see that the old, the sick and the lame are spared a miserable death in a cattle car.   It is my small way of giving back, and being very thankful that I have the means to be the owner of 30 year old and 27 year old retired horses.

My heart breaks when I see starving, beaten and abused horses, dogs and other companion animals.  I know that yours breaks also.  So please, people—if you have a beloved animal companion warm and safe at home–a dog, a cat or if you’re very fortunate, a horse—find a local shelter or rescue and do what you can to support it.  It may not be much—a few dollars or a few hours of your time.  But trust me, it will mean the world to those you support.  Thank you.

When Cancer Comes To Call

A patient story tonight, from Jackie:

 

It was one of those days.  I had been to the gynecologist the week prior because I somehow knew the sporadic bleeding which I had experienced was NOT a simple Urinary Tract Infection for which I had been treated three times.  My doctor did the scrapings and biopsies and had me run down the hall for an ultrasound.  I’d had lots of ultrasounds during my pregnancies – especially with my twins -  but this one wasn’t fun.  There was no cute baby to smile at.  This time it was a transvaginal ultrasound which involved the insertion of a rather large tube into “that place” to look at the uterus.  “My what a big wand you have” I joked with the sonographer.  She didn’t smile.  That’s when I got a bit nervous.

Of course my doctor put a positive spin on everything – prior to the biopsy results.  He said it was probably just an over thickening of the uterus, Hyperplasia.  So I decided to wait until there was something solid to review and went on about my life.  I had a dental appointment a few days later.  My dentist announced I needed a root canal immediately and sent me to a nearby Oral Surgeon.  As I was pulling up to the Oral Surgeon’s office my cell phone rang.  It was my gynecologist.  “Well, there is a malignancy….”.  The words hung in the air.  We had a brief conversation – darn, I thought – I had researched  Hyperplasia thoroughly and knew all the right questions to ask.  I felt like I had studied for a test and then the test changed.   He said I needed to contact a special Gynecological Oncology surgeon and that his office would tell me what’s next.  So I called and left a message with that doctor but said I couldn’t talk for a couple of hours because I was just about to go in to have a root canal.  One thing I will say about those specialists’ offices; they run like a well oiled machine.  As I walked back to my car 2 hours later there was a message on my cell phone.  It was Jay, the Office Manager for the Gynecological surgeon I needed to see.  He was calling to schedule my appointment.  He paused and said “Good luck with the root canal. Sounds like you are having a great day”.   And so it went.

My life was forever changed.  May brought the diagnosis.   June brought the scheduling of the hysterectomy.  July 1 was the surgery.  July 10 came the pathology report.  Not what we had hoped for– the “once and done” hysterectomy revealed some naughty cells lurking within the uterus that have a tendency to “jump” into other areas.  Chemo or Radiation? My case was submitted to the Austin Gynecological Oncology Tumor Board for review as recommended by my Surgeon.  I was overwhelmed.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  As is often the case when you do get the “C” diagnosis; you are thrown into a blender of emotions but when the dust settles the appetite for knowledge takes over.  And so it was decided that radiation was the protocol. After I healed from surgery, radiation began.

So here’s the thing:  it wasn’t that horrible.  For anyone who has been through tough times, worked hard and experienced inconvenience or sadness – you are mentally strong and prepared for this challenge.  It is definitely a Mind Game.  I decided to fight and endure and not to whine and whimper.  For 6 weeks my life revolved around daily visits to the Oncology Center.  The treatment wasn’t bad.  The hardest part was drinking 40 ounces of water prior to treatment.  The side effects clicked in about 3 weeks in; lower GI issues.  But oh well, diarrhea is not the end of the world.  My pubic hair fell out which I found fascinating. I met wonderful friends in the waiting room.  The therapists and nurses and doctors were wonderful.  My neighbors and family rallied and emotions ran high.  Food and flowers poured in.   My sweet neighbor who had just finished two years of breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo, radiation, reconstruction – I was at her door daily for her battle.  Now, she was at mine.  Life sifts down to the basics of priorities: Faith and Family and Friends.

I finished my radiation on September 15 and got to Ring the Bell which is special to all cancer patients because it means YOU ARE DONE.   My sweet family and a few friends showed up.  Tears flowed.  My husband pushed through the group to shake the hand of my Radiation Oncologist and choked “Thank you for helping my wife”.  I was ready to start my new healthy life.

Check-ups will continue for a few years and I will see both my Surgeon and Radiation Oncologist often. That’s okay.  My Surgeon is cute (I think he is almost the same age as my oldest son) and my Radiation Oncologist is an incredible mother of four who never seems hurried or distracted and makes me feel like I am THE most important patient in her practice.  I feel so blessed to have been in such capable hands.

I feel wonderful.   Celebrating my December birthday was more special this year.  Welcoming the New Year signaled almost a palpable relief to make a fresh start.  I take nothing for granted and try hard to live in the moment.  Ever the planner, this has been my most challenging goal.

For Christmas this year my daughter gave me a beautiful silver charm.  On the front it says “Faith”.  She told me to turn it over.  On the back was engraved 9-15-2014.  My final day of radiation.  It has been the most horrible of years, but it has been the most wonderful of years.  When Cancer comes to call you rise up and fight the good fight.  And then, you go on.

Siskel and Ebert

I have always loved the movies.  Like every grade school kid watching reruns, I cried when Bambi’s mother died, and when starry eyed Judy Garland clicked her heels and said, “There’s no place like home!”  But when the big budget films hit the screen in my early pre-teen years—Ben Hur, Camelot and Lawrence of Arabia, I was irretrievably hooked.  Sitting in a dark theater, I could escape from actual or imagined troubles.  Some people prefer live theater, but for me it was always the big screen, where I could pretend to be Guinevere as Lancelot leaned in for a kiss, or Holly Golightly, or Cleopatra, up close, more real than in real life.  By high school I was reading the film critic’s reviews in our local paper, and by college I had my favorites.  Pauline Kael was far too esoteric for me—my “go to guys” were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert with their trademark “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

I was channel surfing last night and I just happened upon CNN which was airing a documentary film about Roger Ebert, his career and his struggle with cancer called “Life Itself” from his memoir of the same title.  I had been aware that Ebert had been battling head and neck cancer for years before his death but I was not well versed in the details of his illness.  Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma of the thyroid in 2002, typically a rather low grade cancer treated primarily with surgery. Unfortunately he was unlucky and the cancer recurred, ultimately necessitating removal of his lower jaw with subsequent loss of his larynx, and his ability to speak and swallow.  What was unique about Mr. Ebert was that unlike many public figures, especially those in the visual media whose jobs sometimes depend on facial appearances, he chose not only to go public with his illness, but to ENGAGE his many fans and followers in his day to day struggles via his website, his blog, and his Twitter account.  He allowed Steve James, the documentary filmmaker, to film him not only on his best days, but also on his worst.  He smiled and joked for the camera nearly immediately after his radical mandibulectomy and neck dissections, even as he was being suctioned for the secretions which if left untended would choke him.  His wife Chaz, his stepchildren and grandchildren were equally generous, at a time when the family was undergoing much pain and hardship.  He clearly had his demons and his days where he wanted to quit, but ultimately he was buoyed by the support he received from not only his fans, but from directors and actors he had at times panned.  To see Martin Scorcese pause to wipe a tear on camera when discussing his friend was a window into what this person meant to his friends and peers.

What I had forgotten, and was reminded of while watching the documentary, was that Ebert was not the only member of the Siskel and Ebert team who suffered from cancer.   Gene Siskel was operated on for glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, in the spring of 1998.  Only his wife knew of the diagnosis—he chose not to even tell his children.  He was back at work nearly immediately, and only when he became symptomatic again in early 2009, did he request a leave of absence from his show.  He died of complications of a second surgery to deal with recurrence in February 1999.  His friend and colleague Roger Ebert only learned the truth about the disease on a Friday, just days before he died, and had planned to see him on Monday.  Siskel died that weekend.  Ebert and his wife were devastated that they had not known, and had not been able to convey the love that was in their hearts.  I can only imagine how his other friends and family felt.

In my career, I have seen it both ways.   I have had patients who have their entire families with them for each treatment, who have written books about their illness, who have blogged about it, who have made public appearances and who have been pillars of support groups.   I have also had patients who were absolutely adamant that no one, sometimes not even spouses or children, should know about their cancer and treatment.  The reasons have been many—fear of unemployment, fear of upsetting loved ones, fear of being seen as weak or ill, and in one case, a minister who feared that his congregation would see his illness as punishment for prior sins.  But the common denominator was always one thing:  fear.

My patients generally have made up their own minds about what to reveal and to whom.  I respect their decisions and support them in whatever way that I can.  But when they do ask me, I always tell them that it is better not to take this particular journey alone.  Not every movie has a well-executed plot or a happy ending.  But as Siskel and Ebert would always say, there is joy in the characters you meet and love along the way.

Love Letters

Another guest post tonight, from my friend Jackie Widen:

I miss letters.  Rather, I miss sending AND receiving letters in the mail, real letters on stationery.  Our cultural communication has been reduced to tweets, posts, texts, emails and Facebook messages. Another part of growing older is remembering and cherishing this simpler method of communication. I guess I am old.

I have always been a letter writer.  I remember as a child writing to both of my grandmothers who lived in California.  Both were widowed and led quiet lives, and at the time I just thought it normal to correspond regularly with them.  Now I realize how much they must have enjoyed receiving my crudely crafted letters.  The news to share was probably silly in hindsight; what grades I got on my spelling test (yes they actually tested for spelling back in the day) or what our pets were doing or how pretty was the dress my mother had recently sewn for me.   The postal rates were regular mail and air mail, and of course air mail was preferred. There were “air mail” stickers to plaster across the envelopes and to keep postage down we wrote on flimsy air mail stationery so that long letters were lightweight and could pass under a single unit of postage. Of course we used fountain pens.  Oh and don’t forget the sealing wax.  For my 8th birthday I received a set of stamps and sealing wax candles.  I can still smell the wax as it dripped onto the point of the envelope seal, and then I would select (quickly) the stamp of choice and stamp firmly, leaving a distinct initial or fleur de lis.

My father dutifully wrote each week to his mother, as did my mother to hers, but somehow I remember my father’s efforts more.  Phoning long distance to California was a luxury – forget unlimited talk or cell phone freedom – and so perhaps I observed his habit and incorporated it into my own routine.  When I left for college in 1970 my father wrote to me every week, and I loved opening my mail box in the Student Center and seeing his distinctive script scrawled across an envelope.  The letters were short, scratched out on tablet paper that I recognized from his work, and he always enclosed a few dollars for a treat. Usually our correspondence revolved around how the Dallas Cowboys had fared recently, or how his golf game was or just stuff about the family.  I saved every one of his letters and gathered them with ribbon.  Thank heavens in all the purging my parents did during retirement they didn’t throw out my special box of college mementos.  While cleaning out my mother’s house last spring I found all of MY letters that I had written to him.  He had saved them all too.

Preparing my 90 year old mothers’ house for sale was a tough project.  But there were treats along the way.  Packed carefully away in an old trunk were three sets of letters, bound up in aged ribbon and yellowed with time.  The first set were letters written to my grandmother from her then fiancée, the grandfather I never knew as he died when my mother was 12.  The paper was filmy onion skin, the script exquisite in its fluid loops and dips.  Why did we stop teaching penmanship in schools?  His cursive was amazingly beautiful, from a different era – I was dropped back in time into 1918.   I felt almost guilty reading about the anticipation about their upcoming nuptials.  The letters were sweet and innocent and filled with fervent passion about their future together.  The next set were the letters my grandfather had written to his daughter (my mother) while she was at camp – the summer she was 12.  A smaller stack, but the poignant part of that keepsake was the final letter written just before he was scheduled for surgery from which he did not survive.  The letter arrived after he passed away.  My mother put that final letter on top and bundled them up.  I am pretty sure she never revisited that correspondence.  She confided years ago that her childhood ended that day; that she felt old and heavy at the young age of 12 as she was an only child and felt enormous responsibility to care for her mother, a 42 year old widow who had never worked a day in her life or finished high school.  She was her mother’s caregiver until my grandmother passed away at age 98.

The final set were letters my father wrote to my mother during their courtship.  I recognized my father’s scrawl immediately.  It was more legible back then; hard to believe he had already served during World War II, gone to college on the GI bill and was just starting out at Shell Oil at the ripe old age of 30. He and my mother were engaged and he had been transferred out of town; so writing letters was the way they kept in touch.  Again I felt like a voyeur, but it was a wonderful piece of our family history that was indescribably beautiful.

As I ponder the New Year, I think about the ways I would like to make my life more meaningful.  I can lose a few pounds and exercise more, play more and worry less – but it occurred to me that I would like to write more and spend more time with pen to paper.  My calligraphy lessons have infused me with a new passion for the beauty of the printed word, but I know also the simple act of writing a letter to someone will give them more pleasure than it gives me.  So for my lovely mother-in-law and the elderly lady in California who we enjoy helping out – there is a fresh stack of note cards ready to be filled.  All I need is the sealing wax.  Amazon Prime is taking care of that.

The Library

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”  Stephen King

If books are a uniquely portable magic, the same cannot be said for hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of books, but port them we did.  The first thing that my husband and I noticed about the house we ended up buying was the library—a room completely lined from top to bottom with built in bookcases.  I have lived in many places, and set up makeshift bookshelves from salvaged boards and cinder blocks, and later, the do it yourself–put them together to watch them fall apart IKEA models—but I have never had a library.  Say it with an affected British accent if you will—the “lye-brahr-ry”, or feign embarrassment and call it the “TV room”, this library has become the focal point of our home.

I consider myself fortunate—my family has always revered books.  I have two volumes from my mother’s childhood, Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back, reprinted in August 1941.  You don’t remember Mary Poppins?  Let me jog your memory of a far more innocent time: “If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads.”  At the end of the second chapter, the children Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been on her day off.  She replies, “In Fairyland.”  They are baffled when she tells them that she did not see Cinderella or Robinson Crusoe.  They proclaim that she could not have been in THEIR Fairyland.  Mary Poppins gives a superior sniff and replies, “Don’t you know, that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?”

My own Fairyland was created by Walter Farley, and Marguerite Henry and Albert Payson Terhune.  Farley wrote the famous Black Stallion and Island Stallion series of stories about Alec and The Black, an Arabian washed ashore with the young boy who tames him after a shipwreck, and Steve Duncan and Flame, the chestnut stallion he discovers on the mythical Caribbean island of Azul. Henry wrote Misty of Chincoteague, and Stormy, Misty’s Foal, inspiring little girls of my generation to long for their very own ponies.  Terhune wrote Lad, a Dog which I read when I was ten.  Twelve years later, while in medical school, the first puppy I ever bought on my own was a collie.  The dreams and myths inspired by a childhood of reading never really go away.

And so, when my children were young, I bought books upon books, and since I worked during the day, we read them together late into the night, before Harry Potter, which they were old enough to read on their own, and before video games, and computers and Facebook. The kids had their favorites—one was The Ox-Cart Man, describing the rhythmic seasons of life in colonial New England, by Donald Hall who later became poet laureate of the United States.  They also loved Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, about a young boy who helps an elderly lady in a nursing home regain her memory by bringing her objects from the past, and of course The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein about selflessness and unconditional love.

When the kids grew up, and graduated to their own taste in reading material, I put away the children’s books—packed them lovingly into boxes and put them out in the shed by the barn.  And there they sat, quiet and safe, until the movers from Allied Van Lines retrieved them and brought them here, to the library.  As I unpacked all the boxes, the memories of childhood—my mother’s, my own, and my children’s came back full force as I indulged myself by opening and rereading nearly all of them, until I came to my own favorite, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney in 1982, two years before my daughter was born.  It’s called Miss Rumphius, about a little girl named Alice who grows up and travels far and wide, but comes home to a city by the sea, where she plants lupines and becomes known as The Lupine Lady.  As a little old lady, she tells stories of her adventures to her great niece, also named Alice.  Little Alice says, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”  The Lupine Lady says, “That is all very well little Alice, but there is a third thing you must do.”  “What is that?” asks little Alice.  Her great aunt replies, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”  “All right” says little Alice, who then reflects, “But I do not know yet what that can be.”

If books can inspire our children to make the world a more beautiful place, then they are indeed magic. I am so glad I kept all of ours.