Have you ever noticed you get better service in a store or restaurant when you’ve taken the time to dress up? My husband and I were getting ready to go meet Dr. M, the first doctor we would see after his diagnosis. My step-father asked my husband what he was going to wear. My husband glanced down at his jeans and t-shirt, “this?” he replied. My step-father then offered a piece of advice that we would follow at every appointment…
“You don’t want the doctor to see you as a patient, you want them to see you as a peer. You need to dress appropriately so that they will identify with you on that level.”
After we both changed, we headed out.
I am so thankful that Dr. M was the first doctor we would see in this ordeal. She would be in charge of his colon surgery. Not only did she have an outstanding reputation as a surgeon, but she was a positive force, and we loved her right away. A surgery to by-pass his large intestine and insert a chemo port in his chest was scheduled for a couple of days later. This surgery would allow my husband to eat normally and be comfortable. She reassured him repeatedly that it would be temporary. Once the primary tumor in his colon was removed, she would put him back together. But that would have to wait for now, because the immediate focus would be on his liver.
We left Dr. M’s office feeling a little better, positive, at least we had the utmost confidence in Dr. M and we knew there was now a plan in place, the ball had started rolling. We had been informed that there would be a team in charge of my husband’s care. They would conference at regular intervals on the best course of action. Dr. E would be my husband’s oncologist, and Dr. R would be his liver surgeon. Nurse C would be the nurse navigator who would keep everyone on the same page and be a primary contact for my husband. Chemo would begin immediately after he had recovered from surgery.
Meeting Dr. E for the first time was an entirely different experience. I think we met him the day after my husband’s surgery, and dressed in a hospital johnny and hooked up to IVs, my husband was definitely not dressed to impress. He looked every inch the patient he was, and was acutely dealing with his new reality. I, on the other hand, was trying my best to offer comfort and reassurance to my husband, while dealing with the fact that the last time I had been in a hospital room was when my father had died of cancer two years earlier. To say I was feeling fiercely protective of my husband was an understatement. I was hoping that Dr. E would bring us more optimism along the lines that Dr M had… that wouldn’t be the case.
“You have metastatic colon cancer (stage IV) that has spread to the liver and possibly the lungs. Right now it’s your liver that we have to focus on, and the tumors in your liver are not operable at this point. This type of cancer is not curable with chemotherapy… This is what you will end up dying of.”
He actually said that, “this is what you will die of”… I could see my husband deflating, and my blood was boiling. I had this intense urge to lung across the hospital bed and scratch this doctor’s eyes out. How do you know?! How do you know?!! How do you know?!!! You do NOT know my husband, and you most certainly do NOT know me!!!!!!! As he discussed the treatment plan, I could not contain myself and I think he could see the look in my eyes and the edge in my voice when I said through gritted teeth, “But there is HOPE right? There is a chance?” This is it doctor, you better not leave here without giving my husband something to hold onto you bastard! “Yes”, he said “there are always new treatments coming out”.
After he left I was horrified at what he had said, we both were. We decided that we would not pass on that tidbit to anyone… and we didn’t, not until many months later. We put that into a little box that we kept between the two of us. That would not be our reality.
It was only a few days later, now out of hospital, when we went to meet with Dr. E again to discuss starting chemo. We dressed up. I had been planning what I wanted to say during that meeting. It was difficult because my husband “the patient”, wanted and needed to be taken care of. I, on the other hand “the supporter/protector/advocate”, needed more. I told my husband on the drive to the cancer clinic that if Dr. E would not maintain an optimistic attitude (or at the very least an even one) that I wanted to find another doctor that would. I didn’t think I could keep my mouth shut this time.
Turns out my planned speech was not necessary, out of the hospital environment Dr. E’s demeanor was decidedly different. While not entirely optimistic, he didn’t bring the doom and gloom. I could see why they had chosen him for my husband’s case. They were about the same age, and I could see them being friends under different circumstances. I was willing to give him another chance.
In all fairness to Dr. E, his job must be an incredibly difficult one. I can’t imagine having so many patients in various desperate states… many (most?) of which will suffer and die. We met with Dr. E regularly, and we looked forward to these meetings. My husband and I could always tell when he must have had a harder day than others. Perhaps when we had met him for the first time he had had a particularly bad day… I will give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that’s how dire the the situation really appeared, we just refused to see it. Dr. E’s emerging optimism through the course of my husband’s treatment was interesting to watch, as my husband’s response and recovery amazed at every point.
While I’m aware that doctors are obligated not to mislead, or sugar coat the situation, they must not be afraid of giving out a healthy dose of hope. Without hope, there is no point. Statistics apply to groups, not individuals… and you never know the capabilities of the person sitting in front of you.