Every year on March 22, the anniversary of my father’s death, I write an email to my father’s oncologist, Dr. M. In my correspondence to him, I thank him for giving my father options to consider in fighting his cancer. I sometimes ask him questions about death, loss and coping. And you know what? Every year, Dr. M writes back. He is a busy doctor, gathering research for his cancer patients, managing his clinical practice, and living his own life. But he takes time to articulate a response that is thoughtful and comforting. He thanks ME for writing him, grateful that I chose to keep in touch.
Dr. M always knew my father’s illness was incurable. He never hid from that fact. But during our countless visits to him, he explained and tried to help us understand what was going on with the pathology of my father’s illness. Often these visits would last over thirty minutes. A mixture of sadness and reality would penetrate Dr. M’s patient room, but there was always some hope too. He always offered a treatment that he believed would help my father fend off the cancer and buy him some more time.
When my father was diagnosed, he had less than twenty percent chance to live six months. With Dr. M and his treatment protocals he lived four and half years. When my father neared the end of his life, Dr. M wasn’t afraid to say that there was nothing more that he could do. When hope was a possibility he offered it; when there wasn’t any, he was realistic. And through it all, he was humble, gracious and kind.
My conversations with Dr. M happen only once a year. But what I learn from his words are truths he can only offer from his purview. He has emphasized that my father was lucky to have a family that supported him through his disease. There are many patients who have no one waiting for them while they are in surgery or getting chemo or sitting with them while they wait for the doctor’s examination. I never thought that my family’s willingness to be there for my father was a matter of luck. I always thought it was a matter of love. But from Dr. M’s perspective there are many who die alone and that makes it unbearable for the dying.
The second truth I’ve learned from Dr. M is that there are very few things we can control. Although we think every decision we make is in our control, there is so much we don’t know. When treating the dying, Dr. M has acknowledged that we can’t control the disease, but we exercise our educated judgment and hope for the best. And that at a certain point we must let go. That God does the rest. And that may sound trite coming from me, but I don’t think that it sounds that way from Dr. M. The lessons of letting go come best from those who observe it on a daily basis.
I’m grateful that my father and family intersected with Dr. M. He has taught me that a prerequisite for being a good doctor has nothing to with medicine. It has everything to do with being a good person. And those qualities are something we all can learn to do better.
Have you encountered a good doctor? Have you learned any lessons from these individuals? Do you think my family’s experience with Dr. M is rare?