I surrendered my white coat on the afternoon of the 26th of February year 2013 – the day I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer Stage 2A, the day that changed my life.
I take physically care of patients. But what happens when the role is reversed? I found myself leaving my ego on the door with full trust. At that point being a doctor didn’t matter anymore, it was the transition to being a patient that mattered, in my case, healing started at that moment. The perceived control we were used to having when caring for patients was gone. In my case I had to surrender it in full. I learned that it takes a lot of courage to “trust on the faith” that all will be well. It was a very humbling experience and I will always acknowledge that with all my heart.
They say knowledge is power but at that time I lost it. Visualize the feeling of being scooped into a black hole filled with feelings of disbelief, add to that a component of wanting to fight back immediately.
Feelings of helplessness ensued me. I learned that it is also perfectly fine to ask others for support and help. Role reversal was difficult for me but I knew in my heart that it was a lesson I needed to learn.
Fear and loneliness. Everything seemed to happen all at the same time. I badly needed my doctor to be at my side to explain a lot of things to me since I decided to detach myself from my “doctor state.” I totally eliminated my love for reading at that time too. So you see it became a whole new perspective for me when I transitioned from doctor to patient.
Lying on the surgical table wearing the blue green gown and staring at the LED lights above me and waiting for the anesthesiologist to cover my mouth with the mask that contained the gas that I am to inhale to make me sleep was like waiting for the execution of my death sentence. The fear was that real – but then I suddenly got a nudge in my heart, a whisper to surrender and have faith. Constant reassurance from those around me sustained me. I cannot underestimate its power.
I remembered wanting to quit on the 4th cycle of chemotherapy (I had to undergo six cycles) because I was already tired of its side effects and the whole process in itself, I remember opening up to my doctor that I just wanted everything to end on my 4th cycle, to not complete it anymore and he said “It’s always a choice. Your choice, but you’re about to finish, just two more and you’re done.” And then I realized within myself that two isn’t bad, after all I already came this far so why quit? I even came to the point of computing the years I have left – yes, literally counted. What my doctor told me mattered, that conversation mattered, very simply said but I honestly felt the empathy pierce through my heart. As a patient, I needed words of realistic encouragement but couple that with the determination to be one with me on my fight. As they say – FINISH STRONG!
I found myself wanting to spend time with my doctor most especially when the first chemotherapy drug was being infused (I had three by the way), the first was known to cause a lot of side effects that even if I knew it I had to park my knowledge and still get those reassuring words from my doctor that all will be well, that I can do it and that he’s there to watch my back. Reassurance matters. The physical presence matters. In fact it meant a lot. Just like any relationships we have, we need others too at one point in our lives to balance us and reassure us that we’re doing just fine.
I counted my years, that thing called life span we have in medicine, because I knew the “cut-off” of Breast Cancer specifically but then I would always be nudged by my heart, again, to not count on the years but on the faith that I still have a lot of them to come and to look forward to.
Scans were and they still are hell for me up to now. Remember that thing I mentioned on one of my blogs about “not rehearsing the problem?” Well, when the doctor becomes the patient that doesn’t happen. I recalled having to catch that first glimpse of my mammography plates way back and seeing those two nodes and that mass on my left breast at that time still lingers on. That’s precisely why we muster every millimeter of courage possible in us to go through the tests required every single year. Again, reassurance matters. This is what I hang on to all the time.
Life is a balance between what we can control and what we can’t, one must learn to live comfortably between effort and surrender.
There was so much vulnerability that was stripped off from me when I dived into the patient experience, but I have no regrets, the lessons were valuable. I can only hope that my colleagues will continually understand that this vulnerability converts into feelings of helplessness and that patients count on us to level and understand the root cause of where they are coming from. Not everything can be explained in scientific terms, nothing is more reassuring than a message of hope all the time.
Doctors have a lot to learn from patients, a role I played once. Find fulfillment in knowing that it’s more than just a life that you are saving or healing, it goes deeper in the sense of gluing back a broken spirit together again and that in itself is something divine. The alleviation of the patient’s fears and anxieties forms part of the healing process in itself.
Lastly, the art of Medicine is not all about books and the four walls of the clinic or hospital; it’s more of literally mending humanity back together again.