Experiencing an uninvited gift

It’s been five years since she was told she was cancer free. Today she was told it was back, and the future was quite grim.

My job was to make sure she understood how to properly take the medication that would reduce the swelling around the tumor so radiation could start as soon as possible.

That was my job. Clinically speaking it wasn’t the most challenging or difficult issue of the day as I scanned her file. Then I went to speak with her.

It took mere minutes to make sure she understood how the new medication worked, how to fit it into her day with her other medications, how she might feel taking it. We reviewed her other drugs and medical conditions and I assessed her level of understanding to be high. Job done.

But what about the other part of my job? When she told me about the cancer returning, I looked into her eyes and could see the shock and the fear. What she needed in that moment was human connection, a hand on hers and someone to listen to her.

When I looked around for the time I needed all I saw was the impossibility. At least a dozen patients waiting for me to sign off on their medications, one waiting to learn how to use their new inhaler, and two patients nervously waiting for me to administer their injections. At the same moment I heard one of my technicians say I was wanted on the phone by a physician.

Time — I didn’t have it. I couldn’t take her into my office and be that presence for her.  So I spoke medication, touched briefly on the agony of the diagnosis, and resisted going too deep.  I know too well the fragility of emotion, and without the privacy to truly be present to her situation, she needed to keep from falling apart and make her way home.

But somehow I feel I have failed. There have been times when I have taken patients into the office who have been grief stricken, going through withdrawal, requiring in-depth discussion of an issue. But today, I was stretched too thin.

And so, I take it home with me.

I have had colleagues tell me to leave the job at the door. Walk away to my family and rest assured there will be more patients and problems tomorrow. I have learned that at times I can and must do it, and at other times I simply can’t. But perhaps it’s the “can’t” moments that make me a better professional, a better person. There are times when I experience humanity laid bare, a rawness of emotion, a fragility to life.

These experiences become a part of me whether I invite them in or not. In the end they are an univited gift.

Carlene Oleksyn is a pharmacist in Canada who blogs at An Examined Life. She can also be reached on Twitter @colekpharm.

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