We’ve been very busy lately, and so it was 6:30 this evening before the last patient was escorted to the linear accelerator to be treated. She had had a compression fracture of a lumbar vertebra last week due to metastatic breast cancer, and had been in excruciating pain despite a procedure called a vertebroplasty, where cement had been injected into the crumbling bone to shore it up. When that gave her no relief, and her doctors were concerned about impending spinal cord compression, she was referred to me. Despite the already packed schedule, what could we do except get her planned and treated as an add on at the end of the day? The alternative of paralysis was not an option. I grumbled to myself all the way down to the vault—my feet were aching and I was tired. As I walked into the shielded “maze”, I heard my radiation therapists cheerfully assisting the woman onto the treatment table as if she were the first patient of the day.
Once a week, on Mondays, I see all of my patients on treatment. Each patient is escorted from the linac to an exam room by one of the therapists. There is never a Monday where at least one of the patients, and many times all of them, comment about what a great “crew” I have treating down there at the machine. I smile, nod, and say “That’s because I hired them!” I am lying. I did put that team together, but the truth is that radiation therapists everywhere have much in common. They stand on their feet all day, helping patients who are sometimes tearful, sometimes anxious, sometimes immobilized by pain or fear. Between each patient who is honestly grateful for their services, they deal with those demanding a schedule change daily, those who are chronically late, those who are chronically early, and those who will only be treated by a (woman) (man) (person with blue eyes) (whatever—you name it). They risk injury all the time, lifting and assisting patients who cannot do for themselves. They smile, and they are pleasant and they care, leaving their own problems at home to be kind all day, every day, for their entire careers. This is a profession, and believe me they are professionals, that selects for genuinely nice people. It’s a hard job, both physically and emotionally and if you do not have the temperament for it, you do not last long.
There is one radiation therapist that I worked with longer than any other, for nearly nine years. I changed jobs in 2004, but George is still there. An exceptionally tall man at six foot five, his size alone inspired confidence in the patients. Despite the fact that I always explained the treatment to them ahead of time, little old ladies would get two or three days into treatment, and say, “George, tell me again what the side effects of treatment are going to be.” He would reply, without missing a beat, “You will have an irresistible urge to BAKE!” And bake they did, cookies and brownies, and cakes and cinnamon rolls to make very sure that their special guy did not go hungry during a long treatment day. I remember the very first time I followed a patient into the treatment room at that place. The linear accelerator, imposing in its immensity was ready; the treatment table, which we call the “couch” was covered with a clean white sheet. George stood by the set up smiling, one arm outstretched, gesturing like a maître d’ at a fine restaurant. When he said, “Table for one?” the patient collapsed into giggles.
Nothing kills cancer like kindness and a good sense of humor.