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.

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.

In Pursuit of Perfection

“Upon what instrument are we two spanned, and what musician holds us in his hands?”

Rainer Maria Rilke

This past week was a very busy yet very interesting time for me.  Early in the week, I had a visit from an old medical school classmate who is now one of our nation’s leading researchers in diabetes and other endocrine diseases.  Although most of his time is spent in the lab, he still prides himself on being an outstanding clinician, and I can attest to that.  I would choose him for my own personal physician any day, were he not based at Duke in Durham, NC.  He told me the following story:  a few months ago he was the attending physician on the endocrine consultation service.  The fellow on duty was called for a consult on a middle aged man who needed an amputation for vascular complications related to his diabetes, and the surgeon needed to make sure his blood sugars were under control before taking him for surgery.  The endocrinology fellow assessed the patient’s insulin requirements, and also mentioned that the man was complaining of some mild upper back pain, which seemed insignificant at the time. The case was presented to my friend, was assessed to be routine, and the patient went to surgery.  Shortly after the operation, the man suffered a cardiac arrest due to a myocardial infarction in the posterior circulation.  He did not survive.  My friend, whose job was NOT to assess the patient’s cardiac status, but rather his diabetic control, is still beating himself up about the patient’s death, many months later.  He insists that he should have asked the surgeon for a cardiac work up prior to the surgery.

On Thursday, I flew to Kalispell, MT to attend my nephew’s graduation from Montana Academy, a boarding school dedicated both to academic excellence, and the therapeutic mission of helping teenagers with problems learn to cope in positive ways. At the graduation ceremony, I was moved to tears several times, first by the headmaster’s recounting of the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops as an analogy for the importance of finding and declaring one’s true identity, and later by the speeches of some of the parents whose children had benefited from this school, set in the green pastures and foothills of Montana. Finally, and even more importantly, some of the students themselves spoke, hesitating at first and stumbling over their words, but gaining strength from the support of the gathered crowd as well as their teachers, counselors and the founders of the school sitting behind them.  The students spoke of the failures which led them to the academy, each small but increasingly significant success they met there, and their hopes and dreams for the future.  These students were articulate and impressively intelligent. The last student who spoke was particularly moving, when she said, “Here I discovered that I am worthy of love, and that I DESERVE to love and be loved in return.”

We all strive for perfection, and yet for most of us it is our failures which teach us the meaning of life and of being human.  Some of us are lucky enough to learn this at eighteen, but many of us are still learning these lessons at sixty.  Last night, as I prepared for bed a row of necklaces I have hanging from pegs in the bathroom caught my eye—fossil mammoth ivory turned blue from arctic hoarfrost, and set with a fire opal, lapis prayer beads from Bhutan, ancient carnelian beads from the mountains of Nepal, and an old Chinese quartz crystal set in silver with enameled symbols of yin and yang.  I wondered, for myself, for my nephew and for my old friend, what talismans are these which can keep us safe, which can protect us from our own demons?  And what great musician holds us in his hands?  We can only continue to do the very best we can.

For Ellen

“to live in this world

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1

As a parent, you are not supposed to have a favorite child, and since some of us physicians feel a strange but kindred protectiveness for our patients, likewise we feel guilty about having favorites.  But we always do. My favorite patient died last night.  On my last day of work, I gave her my email address and my cell phone number, so we could keep in touch.  She gave me a bright red stuffed teddy bear, so that I would always remember my “wild red headed woman from Texas.”  Except that she had no hair–she had grown and lost it so many times over the six years I treated her that even I lost count.  When I retired, I made sure that she had a follow up with one of my colleagues, who I trusted would give her his best opinion and effort in managing her care.  When he saw her in March, he told her there was nothing more he could do.  She signed on to hospice the following week.

She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer of the uterus nine and a half years ago.  By the time I met her, in 2008, she had already developed lung metastases and had undergone several courses of chemotherapy, none of which had kept the metastases in check for very long.  After a trial of radiofrequency ablation which resulted in a pneumothorax and chest tube, she was referred to me for consideration of stereotactic radiosurgery.  We treated her lung lesions one by one, and one by one they faded into scar tissue.  She was happy and relatively without symptoms until eighteen months ago, when she began to recur in the lung, and brain, and soft tissues of her muscles.  She remained upbeat, larger than life, encouraging the radiation therapists to treat each new lesion as it occurred.  My entire staff looked forward to treating her every time she returned to the department.  We joked about awarding her “frequent flyer miles” and she laughed and her blue eyes sparkled. Her chocolate chip cookies were legendary, and she gave us the recipe, but they never turned out the way they did when she baked them.  We accused her of leaving out a secret ingredient and she protested vigorously.  She said she would never do that.

She traveled a lot in the last year of her life—to visit her children, to see a new grandchild being born.  Her last trip was to New Orleans with her husband, where she looked forward to eating beignets and listening to Dixieland jazz, even though her trip was interrupted by an emergency room visit for shortness of breath. When we parted at the end of February, we promised to keep in touch and get together for lunch or dinner but she had complications from her last course of therapy, or from the cancer itself, and when I heard from her by text and by email, the news was not good.  In her last email, she told me she had joined a gym, determined to try to regain some of her strength. She promised to call when she was feeling better.

She did call me, last weekend, to see if I could have lunch with her and her husband on Thursday.  I missed her call, but I knew I was busy that day, so I called her back to reschedule but she did not pick up the cell phone.  And so I was not surprised when I received the news today that she had passed away last night.  Not surprised, and yet astounded, that such a vital life force had left us.  My entire staff is bereft.

In his email to me and I am sure, countless others who knew and cared about her, her husband included two photographs of her.  In the first one, they are cutting their wedding cake—she in her beautiful white dress with her long flowing red hair and he, handsome in his tuxedo and moustache.  Over thirty years must have passed between the first photo and the second, where she stands alone, healthy, beaming, and holding a yellow rose.  After all, she was from Texas. As I looked at the pictures again this evening, it occurred to me that I knew that the ingredient she poured into those chocolate chip cookies but forgot to write down for the rest of us was love.  Simply and purely, love.

Love in the Time of Cancer

I used to be able to paint my own toenails but that was before age and arthritis caught up with me and these days I can’t SEE my toes, much less paint them.  Here in the land of perpetual sunshine and flip flops one is not allowed to have ugly feet, so off I went today to see a lovely woman who takes care of such things.  Today she was very sad over the end of what had been a promising love affair. He had seemed to have all the “right ingredients”—handsome, slightly older than her but boyish still, owned his own business, long divorced with no pesky baggage such as alimony—for a while she thought he just might be “the one.”  I asked her what happened and she said simply, “Anger issues.”

A couple of months ago, writer and radiation oncologist Dr. Robin Schoenthaler shared with me an essay she wrote in 2009, which I had somehow missed when it went viral over the internet back then.  It is simply titled, “Will He Hold Your Purse?” and here is the link because it is a must-read for any woman seeking a man:  http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2009/10/04/will_he_hold_your_purse/  I thought about that article today as my manicurist, age forty-five and gorgeous but still single described walking away from a relationship that she recognized could be harmful.  And I remembered some of my own stories from the cancer clinic, and I told her one of them.

I recall one couple distinctly, from 2003.  They were both in their eighties, and she had breast cancer. One reason they were so memorable as a long married couple was that he was African American, and she was Caucasian, and back in the 1940’s when they married, two schoolteachers in love, they must have faced nearly insurmountable prejudices and racism.  He was an attractive soft spoken gentleman, with a sweet smile and wiry close cropped gray hair.  She must have never been a great beauty, but time had thinned her hair, and added on pounds, and osteoporosis had twisted her spine. When I saw her after her surgery, she had had a wound infection, and her breast had become misshapen as a result.  He held her hand tightly though out the consultation, and when I left the room so that she could get dressed, he followed me out into the hall and grasped my own hand in both of his. With tears in his eyes, he asked, “Will she be alright?”  I replied, “Yes, she will.  Her cancer was caught at an early stage, and I think she will be fine.”  He sighed with relief, and still holding my hand, he said of his wife, “She is my princess and my queen and my better half and my best friend.  I could never go on without her.  Thank you, Doctor, thank you.”   We walked back into the exam room and he beamed at her.  She blushed as she met his gaze.

I don’t wish for any couple to have to undergo the litmus test of a cancer clinic.  But when my manicurist said to me today, “I don’t think I even believe in love anymore,” I sure wish we had a proxy for that partner who, in Dr. Schoenthaler’s words, “will sit in a cancer clinic waiting room and hold hard onto the purse in his lap.”  That’s the one we want.

A Different Kind of Mask

“I want them to live again to the point where pain becomes art.”

Lawrence Durrell,  “Justine”

I have always loved masks.  Near sighted likely from birth, a fact which was discovered significantly later, I never minded stumbling around our neighborhood on Halloween, my already deficient depth perception further stunted by my Bugs Bunny mask.  To don a mask was a chance to become someone else,  and as I grew older my disguises became more exotic—a gypsy fortune teller with gold hoop earrings in high school, a Turkish harem girl in college.  My imagination, fueled by the old stories of the Venetian Carnivale dating back to 1162, knew no bounds, and I secretly dreamed of a masked ball where I would glide gracefully and soundlessly, recognizing and being recognized by a handsome prince, by touch and scent alone.

 

In 2002 I took the occasion of my daughter’s graduation from high school as an opportunity for us to visit Venice, and more specifically, the mask shop known as La Bottega dei Mascareri at the base of the famous Rialto Bridge where a lively market persists to this day.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have been speaking metaphorically when she said, “the soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise,” but I was subject to a more literal interpretation.  I wanted to buy a mask from the famous brothers Sergio and Massimo Boldrin, who fashion papier mache masks in the old Venetian tradition.  I picked out a good one, made by Massimo himself, and given the history it depicts—perfect for a doctor.

 

The mask is larger than my face and flat, hand painted with a crackle glaze to look very old, and it pictures a man in medieval clothing dancing around a bonfire,  wearing the peculiar bird beaked mask known to physicians of the plague years.  The beaks were stuffed with medicinal herbs thought to ward off the dread disease.  In just one scene, the mask depicts the horror of bubonic plague—the bird beaked man, the fire to burn the contaminated bodies and clothing, the “ring around the rosie” cheeks of the afflicted.  With some difficulty, I brought my prize home in a suitcase, only to find that it gave me nightmares.  Today it sits on a bookshelf in the study off our garage.   I can’t have it in the house.

 

My patients with head and neck cancer are all too familiar with the concept of the mask, but for them the mask has a different significance.  Fashioned of a material called Aquaplast, the mask starts as a thick sheet of perforated plastic.  Warmed in a hot water bath, the material becomes soft and pliable, and is stretched over the cancer patient’s head and shoulders where it shape shifts to appear like a woman’s fish net stocking, but without the softness.  The mask hardens to become a rigid immobilization device which is bolted to the treatment table.  In my field, precision is everything and the mask, custom made for each patient, allows the radiation oncologist to accurately target the cancer while sparing critical structures such as the spinal cord and the eyes.  Not for the claustrophobic, the mask is a temporary prison for seven weeks of daily treatment.  At the end of treatment, each patient is offered the opportunity to take his or her own mask home.  Most actually do.

 

Today at the biannual Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium in Scottsdale, AZ, I saw something quite extraordinary.  In order to assist patients financially with these cancers, an organization out of Washington DC called 911 4 HNC mounted an exhibition called “Courage Unmasked”  (www.courageunmasked.org).  Cookie Kerxton, an artist who was treated for head and neck cancer herself enlisted other artists to transform radiation masks into works of art.  The results, several of which are on exhibit at the meeting, are objects of exceptional beauty, turning human suffering into inspiration and hope for others.

 

At the meeting, volunteers were handing out free posters depicting forty two of these beautiful masks.  When I get home, I will have my poster framed and I will hang it in the room where I examine my head and neck cancer patients.  I am hoping that the bright colors of the beautiful masks will lessen their fear, and transform their pain.  There is indeed great progress in the treatment of their cancers.

The Glass Is Half Full

A couple of weeks ago my nurse came to me with a request for a consultation.  Since our schedule has been packed full lately, she’s been asking me where I can squeeze patients in.  She said, “I’m not sure about this one—he says you treated him twenty years ago and he wants to see you.  But there is no new pathology so I don’t know how urgent it is.”  I looked at the consult request and did not remember the patient but there were several handwritten jottings on the cover sheet from the referring physician that listed phone numbers and beside them, “no answer at this number X 3,” and “Dr. Fielding hasn’t worked here since 2004.”  Apparently some effort was made to track me down, since I have changed jobs a few times in the last twenty years. I said, “Well get the latest information on the patient and put him in the open emergency slot a week from Friday.”

So Friday came yesterday and this patient was scheduled at one o’clock.  I like to review the charts before I see new patients, so I picked up the chart during a hurried lunch and read through it with a growing sense of recognition, and no small amount of dread. The man had been treated for advanced head and neck cancer back in 1994.  He had presented with cancer on the lateral aspect of his tongue, which was excised by his surgeon.  Six months later, he recurred both on the tongue, on the soft palate, and in his neck, with a large tumor wrapped around his jugular vein.  His surgeon tried, even sacrificing the large vein, but he could not resect all of the cancer and the patient was referred to me for post-operative radiation therapy.  Given that the man was only fifty one years old, his medical oncologist made the decision to give him chemotherapy along with the radiation, a decision which was considered quite radical at the time.  Treatments for head and neck cancer back then were crude by today’s standards, and fraught with complications, and this man had had all of them.

By 2000, he could no longer swallow, and his esophagus had to be dilated.  This happened again in 2008, and another procedure provided relief.  His saliva never fully returned after treatment, and so in 2012, plagued with tooth decay, he began a series of extractions, augmented by hyperbaric oxygen therapy to prevent osteoradionecrosis of his mandible.  Unfortunately this did not work, and he ended up having a portion of his jawbone removed.  A year ago, he began to have a new issue—when he tried to swallow the food was going down “the wrong way” and causing him to choke, resulting in several episodes of aspiration pneumonia.  It was becoming hard for him to go out socially, and enjoy a meal with friends and family. His carotid and vertebral arteries were narrowed, putting him at risk for stroke. Multiple recent studies showed no evidence of recurrence of his cancer, but there was scar tissue in the back of the throat which prevented the epiglottis from closing over the trachea when he swallowed.  These were the things I read in his chart before I saw him, and I anticipated that our session together would be an angry one.

Tall, older and thinner than I had last seen him, the patient greeted me with a huge hug.  His wife smiled warmly.  As we sat and talked in our sunny consultation room, he described his current difficulties and told me that his surgeon had referred him back to me for electrical stimulation therapy of the throat muscles, which might help his aspiration.  Our institution has an entire department for the rehabilitation of head and neck cancer patients.  I groped for the right words to say to this man who had suffered through complications which are rare by today’s standards of care.  I apologized profusely, and explained that now we have better ways of shielding normal tissues to spare patients the terrible late effects of treatment.  I told him I would be happy to put in a referral to our swallowing and speech rehabilitation specialists.  He looked at me in surprise, and said, “Doc, I didn’t come here for that.  Dr. M (the surgeon) already put in the referral. When I found out you work here, I came to say thank you.  I was fifty one when I was told that my chances of survival were 10 per cent.  Now I’m seventy one years old.”  He squeezed his wife’s hand and said, “We’ve traveled the world together.  We’ve seen our grandkids graduate high school.  We’re going on a cruise to San Francisco next week.  Yeah, I’ve had my problems but we’re still having fun!”

Some folks are just “the glass is half full” kind of people.  Having always thought of myself as one of them, I’m surprised it took me a whole consultation to recognize that in my patient. Taking care of cancer patients has always been a good way to remind myself that my own life is not so bad.  Lesson learned, again.

The Good Books

Where I come from, when most people refer to The Good Book, they are referring to the Bible.  This is not true for my father, because to him, the Good Books are something else entirely.  He describes a scene early in his career as a plastic surgeon, when he had taken his doting mother to see his new office. Coincidentally, a lovely thank you note had just arrived from one of his patients.  He read it appreciatively and passed it on to my grandmother, so that she could “kvell” over her son the doctor even more, as if that were possible. His secretary, having a penchant for scrapbooking and noticing the mutual positive reinforcement going on, decided that from that day on, when Dad received a thank you note or letter of appreciation, she would put it in a scrapbook, which he anointed as his “Good Book.”  By the time he retired from full time practice at age 75, he had accumulated a series of five very thick Good Books.  And he advised me to do the same.  He said that when he felt tired or depressed, he would read his Good Books and feel revived.

I’ve never been as organized as my father, who keeps meticulous files on everything that interests him, to this day.  Nor, as a young female physician just starting practice in the early 1980’s, did I ever have a secretary that I would DREAM of asking to “scrapbook” for me, much less bring me a cup of coffee.  But I had many appreciative notes from patients, and I read and treasured each one.  I put them in the top drawer of my desk, and would reread them when I came upon them while searching for a highlighter, or a directory of local doctors.  And when I left that particular job, or that particular city, or that particular office, I would read them one more time, remember the patients who wrote, and let them slip into the recycle bin.  There’s only so much you can take with you, apart from the memories.

Exactly two weeks ago, I received a letter at my office addressed to me personally.  The letter originated in Bradenton, FL where I know no one. I did not immediately recognize the name or the return address, but I opened it and read:

“Dear Dr. Fielding:

It has been 25 years since I completed treatment by you for Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  I came to the Leonard Morse Hospital from Turkey with a tumor in my chest.  I was treated by Dr. Jao and referred to you for radiation therapy.  My treatment included radiation therapy and chemotherapy from November 1987 to October 1988.

I will always remember that when I would meet with you during my radiation therapy I usually felt “lousy.”  You would come into the exam room and tell me I looked great.  Your positive and caring manner always lifted my spirits and renewed my confidence that I would overcome Hodgkins.

I retired in 1995 and have enjoyed good health and my retirement in Florida.  Your caring and medical expertise saved my life and I am forever grateful.  I thank you and wish you a Happy New Year.    Sincerely,  RB.”

The letter was accompanied by a photograph of my patient and his wife, riding gilded carousel horses on a merry-go-round, hands held high to reach for the golden ring.  They appear to be very happy.

I have been thinking a lot lately about retirement myself.   There are places I want to go, people I want to see, and things that I want to do while I am still healthy enough to do them.  When I got home the evening I received that letter, I showed it to my husband who said, “I bet you won’t want to retire now!”  I thought about it for a minute and said, “No, you are very wrong about that. That letter made me cry, but not because I want to continue to do radiation therapy forever.  It made me cry because it made me feel that what I have done since I graduated from medical school in 1978 was worthwhile.  That it MEANT something. That I have not wasted my time.”

To my patients who have taken the time to write over the years—you have no idea how much that means to us doctors.  To my daughter, struggling through a tough internship year in Boston, and to my medical students—stick with it.  Thirty years from now you will be very happy you did, with or without some Good Books of your own.