by S M Chen
by S M Chen
Submitted May 29, 2014
“Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” – Pablo Neruda
Upon completion of a two year overseas assignment, I returned Stateside to begin a radiology residency at Stanford. The residency was a combined one, the first six months of which were spent in radiation therapy, the remainder in diagnostic radiology.
At that time, Stanford was a renowned center for radiation therapy (or radiation oncology), headed by Dr. Henry S. Kaplan, whose main contribution to medicine was his development of potentially curative treatment of Hodgkin disease and other lymphomas by high dose external beam radiation, delivered at that time by a linear accelerator. Many other kinds of solid malignancies were also treated.
Accordingly, patients of all ages and walks of life came from all over the world to have consultations and treatment at the Mecca of the West.
One was a member of a family that owned a successful furniture store in the Bay Area. Recently diagnosed with a type of lymphoma, he was cooperative but very much matter of fact and all business. Which is not to say that he was unpleasant. I’ll call him Mr. B.
Another patient was a pleasant, attractive woman in her 30s with breast cancer which had been recently discovered to be metastatic. She came to see if we could provide some relief from the discomfort of a number of subcutaneous masses she had developed. I’ll call her Ms. M.
To function effectively in such a setting, where one knows that many patients will not be cured, but (hopefully) at least palliated, and some will endure the multitude of unpleasant side effects of radiation without necessarily having their lives prolonged, requires a delicate balance between compassion and sangfroid.
We residents-in-training saw patients in consultation before they were selected to have treatment, and continued to see them during their therapy, which usually consisted of sessions several times a week for at least several weeks. Actual treatments were administered by a technologist familiar with the operation of the sophisticated equipment.
So, out of the myriad of other patients for whom I was responsible, why do Mr. B and Ms. M have a special place in memory?
Mr. B I remember because he typified the patient we preferred to have. Seemingly otherwise healthy, he showed up for his treatments quietly and on time, did not develop any unanticipated side effects, and, to my knowledge, was cured of the disease which, for reasons unknown, came to him in his 40s.
Ms. M appeared to be of a lower socioeconomic class, was less healthy when I first saw her, and did not respond as well to her treatments. Although some of her subcutaneous masses shrank, they did not all disappear. And she visibly weakened during her course of treatment. But she was always cheerful. I did not sense the depth of her gratitude until she brought me an unexpected gift near the completion of her treatments. I was touched by the gesture of appreciation, thanked her, and wished her well. But dread filled my heart, and it surprised me not at all to learn that, not long thereafter, she succumbed to the disease that, without reason or relent, took her in her prime.
In contemplating the past in order to become a more perspicacious person in the present (only the self-examined life is worth living – Socrates), several incidents from Holy Writ come to mind.
I recognize the lack of perfect parallelism in each of these incidents with the stories of Mr. B and Ms. M, and some may argue that it’s a stretch to even attempt to connect them.
Regardless, I’m reminded of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:42-44), in that the person who was less able to gift (Ms. M) was the one who did so. In addition (and the irony doesn’t escape me) she was the one we helped the least, because her cancer had progressed beyond the point of cure. Yet she was the most appreciative.
I also think of the woman who, as a gesture of appreciation, poured precious ointment of spikenard from a box of alabaster on the head of Jesus at the house of Simon (Mark 14:3-6).
And, lastly, I’m reminded of the ten lepers Jesus healed, and of the one (the only one, a Samaritan, no less), who returned to thank Him (Luke 17:12-19), so great was his appreciation.
I know nothing of Ms. M beyond what I have related here. But I feel, despite it having happened decades ago, her little story deserves to be told, and perhaps remembered.
I would also like to think that there is a special place for people like her somewhere in the Kingdom.