I fiddled with my wedding ring as I waited for Dr. Osbourne to meet with me in his office. The metal examining table was cold to the touch. I looked around me, white walls, white computer, white everything. Everything was so clean, so tidy and perfectly placed. The air was stiff, the smell of thousands of other people being told news, good or bad. I stood up from the examining table and swayed side to side looking at the notices posted on the walls.
“Please allow 24 hours for cancellation…”
“Harsh language or abuse will not be tolerated…”
I found a chair to sit in. This one had a stiff back and torn upholstery. It made my bones ache. I had been sick for a long time. In and out of hospitals for the past few years, doctors still had trouble nailing down what ailed me. A lifetime spent in waiting rooms, looking at clocks and sitting while doctors clicked their keyboards. Dr. Osbourne finally arrived in the office, with no amount of grace.
“Hello,” he said in a hurry “Sorry I’m late, lets take a look here…”
Out of breath, he sat down in his chair and hummed and hawed over my file. My appointment today was about the results of the tests they had just done. Bad news was always delivered in person. They couldn’t have just called? I tried to break the silence with some semblance of humour.
“Give it to me straight, doc. I’ve already been waiting for too long.”
He closed my file and laid it down on top of his keyboard. The air in the room suddenly got far too heavy for me to have any hope left of it being good news. Dr. Osbourne exhaled for a long time.
“I’m sorry to say, that you have Cancer. Stage 3. We can put you on chemo…”
Everything slowed down and became blurry. I have Cancer? What will I tell my husband? My children? I have so much life left to be lived. Stage 3, that’s a death sentence right? He’s talking to me about something but suddenly I couldn’t hear him. It sounds like mumbles as I tried to make sense of what he told me. What seemed like an eternity, but in actuality was 2 minutes later, his speech was over and he was preparing to leave.
“See the receptionist to make a follow-up appointment once you’ve mulled over your options.” He noted just as he was closing the door, leaving me to gather my things and exit the building.
Finishing up my lunch, I glanced at my schedule as I washed my hands. Jane was next. I pulled up her file on the computer to verify the results came in on time. I opened up the folder and my heart dropped. Cancer. For the fourth time this week I’ve had to break the news to someone that they’ve got Cancer. It never gets easier. Medical school doesn’t prepare you for the daunting task of informing someone they are terminally ill. It’s a cultivated disassociation from the person sitting in front of you. If you start thinking about their kids, family and all they’ll be leaving behind, it suddenly becomes too hard. Some people call it being cold, I call it survival. Running late for her appointment I start rehearsing my speech in my head:
“I’m very sorry to tell you…”
“It comes with my deepest regret telling you this…”
Don’t overthink it, or you’ll end up looking nervous I try and remind myself. I walk to the examining room she’s sitting in. I stand in front of the door and stare at her file for a few minutes. Bite the bullet, I tell myself. I grab the folder and rush into the room, trying to make it appear like I was really busy.
“Hello,” I say to her in a hurry, “Sorry I’m late, lets take a look here…”. I sit down in my chair and open up the folder. It might as well have Cancer stamped in it with big red letters. I hear Jane say something out of the quiet.
“Give it to me straight, doc. I’ve already been waiting for too long.” My heart feels heavy as I try and meet her nervous gaze. I exhale to amass the energy and strength it requires to let someone know they’re dying.
“I’m sorry to say that you have Cancer. Stage 3.” I blurt out. “We can put you on chemo but it’s unlikely that it’ll be of any help this late in the game. It’s important that you discuss your options with your husband and your family to determine what’s best for you.” I pause. I can tell she’s clouded over and isn’t processing what I’m saying. I continue, “There are many options available for end of life care and we’d be happy to answer any and all questions you have regarding what’s the best option for you.” I stand up to leave. I grab the folder turn to open the door. She looks at me, eyes shrink wrapped in tears, red in the face. I swallow the gut wrenching need to empathize and be of emotional service.
“See the receptionist to make a follow up appointment once you’ve mulled over your options.” I added. I turned to open the door and shut it behind me. I ran into the bathroom to collect myself. Slashing water on my face, I reminded myself that I did the right thing. It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get easier.
This is a response to The Daily Post, daily prompt: A House Divided.
I got the inspiration for this piece from an article in The Atlantic titled: “How to Teach Doctors Empathy“.