Hurricane Season

Watching the events of Hurricane Sandy unfold from a safe distance this past week, I was reminded of the great hurricane that occurred in my own youth, Hurricane Carla. At the time the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, Carla made landfall on the coast of Texas on September 11, 1961. I was seven years old, and had just started third grade. Before the lights went out, I remember taping up the windows and watching the news where our local KTRK news reporter, Dan Rather, reported live from the Galveston Seawall as the winds were howling and the surf was picking up. That broadcast was the one that launched his career. At the time, my family was living– all five of us– in a two bedroom apartment on North Braeswood. As the eldest child, I remember feeling responsible for the younger ones, so that they wouldn’t be afraid of the dark. It was exciting that our little family consisting of my mother, myself, and my brother and sister could huddle around a candle flame, with Mom reading stories and playing games. We ate lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the heat and humidity were oppressive at the end of a long hot Houston summer. I don’t recall my father during that time at all–as a surgical resident I am certain he was at the hospital tending to victims of the deluge. When it was all over, the damage estimates were over 2 billion dollars, but I was a child, and that meant nothing to me. The sun came out, and I went back to school.

Times have changed now, and every tragedy is played out on every computer screen and wide screen television in the country and around the world. From the twenty sixth floor of the Boston Marriot Hotel, I watched in horror as the New York University hospital’s backup generator failed, and nurses, medical students, interns and residents used Ambu bags to help premature newborns and the sick elderly breathe. My heart broke as I read of the woman whose four and two year old sons were swept away by the surge, and who was ignored by frightened homeowners in their darkened houses as she screamed for help. And just today, I read a handwritten note from a young man who was standing in his kitchen as it washed away, and who nearly drowned before taking shelter in a stranger’s house, where he found blankets to cover himself as he wrote what he thought was a last letter to his father. My sister in New Jersey still has no electricity.

When we are children, we are incapable of truly imagining a world beyond our own four walls and our immediate family and friends. Playing games by candlelight, we are shielded from darkness. When we grow up, we struggle against being paralyzed by the same imagination that insulates us when we are young—we see too much, read too much, know too much, and sometimes we feel too much. Hurricane season officially ends on November 30, and hopefully there will be a brief respite before the winter storm season brings the North to its knees again. Watching the election results tonight, I was happy that this too has come to an end. We are adults now, and know that despite the tumult and acrimony that enveloped the last several months, it is time to band together– like the good people of New York and New Jersey–and rebuild. Our future really does depend on it.

When I Was Young

I am in Boston, on the twenty sixth floor of the Copley Marriott Hotel, waiting out the storm. I have not been to ASTRO, my professional society meeting in three years.  I passed when the meeting was in San Diego two years ago, and Miami last year so that I could come to Boston, because I did my residency training here, started my career and my family here, and lived here for fifteen years.  And besides, New England is so lovely in the fall.  I chose my hotel carefully—not too far from the Convention Center, and very close to the restaurants and shopping in Back Bay.  I had it all planned.  All except for Hurricane Sandy.  I arrived here with my office manager on Saturday night, and managed to get in a half day at the meeting yesterday.  Today they “called it” at noon, and here I am back in my hotel room.  Tonight’s parties have all been cancelled but there seems to be a lively crew at the hotel bar.  I’m sure I will be joining them shortly.

We all say that we attend these meetings to learn what’s new in our field of radiation oncology, but the truth is that it’s very hard to learn anything when you run into an old teacher, or resident, or medical student between each lecture and it is ever so much more fun to sit and talk.  I bumped into one of my very first residents yesterday afternoon.  I mentioned that I had been writing down some of my old stories, and she piped in, “I have one for you—it’s about you!  I’ve never forgotten it.”  I said, “Oh, do tell me.”  I was a first year attending, and being responsible for a resident was a frightening prospect, although I tried very hard not to show it.

She said, “It was during my very first few weeks of residency.  I was called up to the ICU to consult on a 91 year old woman who was at the end of her life, on a ventilator.  The situation was dire, but they called us to ask about treating a large skin cancer on her face with radiation.   I knew that there was no way we could get her downstairs to treat her, but I didn’t know what to say on her chart.  So I came and asked you!”    I said, “What did I say?”   She said, “You told me to go up there and write on her chart: SURELY YOU JEST!”

Apparently my sarcastic sense of humor hasn’t changed much in the twenty seven years since that day. It’s how we oncology folk get through it all