Will the real hero please stand up?

On a recent cross-country flight, I feigned sleep and overheard the following conversation between my seatmates: a radiation oncologist (I’ll call her “Dr. M”), and a former firefighter/paramedic called, “Captain.” Thought you’d like to listen in.

DR. M: You guys have been my heroes for a long time, the way you constantly put your lives on the line.

CAPTAIN: We’re in serious danger 10% of the time, at most. Moderate danger another 10%, for a grand total of 20% or so.

DR. M: Interesting, and how odd, the 20%. About 20% of my patients are Stage IV with poor prognosis. Most of the rest get better.

CAPTAIN: Are you bothered by the fact that everyone you treat has cancer? And who do you worry about most?

DR. M: Truthfully, I worry about everyone. My field allows me to know them like family. I guess it’s not the same for you.

CAPTAIN: You’re right. Our circumstances are almost always extreme, and we rarely see patients more than once.

DR. M: So you patch ‘em up and pass ‘em on? Doesn’t that bother you?

CAPTAIN: Sometimes, but we get used to it — the job’s easier that way. What’s it like to lose a patient you’ve known for weeks, or months?

DR. M: Horrible. I’ve never gotten used to it. I was up most of the night last night — does it show?

CAPTAIN:  Just a little. What kept you up?

DR.M: We lost a patient I tried hard to save, someone I cared for very deeply. Nothing worked in the end. I couldn’t stop crying …

CAPTAIN: Really? Somehow all these years, I thought doctors were above that kind of thing.

DR. M: You mean super-human? You’d be surprised how human we are.

CAPTAIN: How do you do it day after day? And you say you’ve done this for forty years? That’s two fire service careers.

DR. M: Honestly, I don’t know. My waiting room is chock-full of ghostly faces I’ve known and loved. It may be time to retire.

CAPTAIN: Sounds right, Doctor. I had to retire when I couldn’t stop thinking about Brian, an 8-year-old boy, and his dog.

DR. M: Who are they? Fire victims?

CAPTAIN: Yep, found them under a bed very early in my career. They followed me for twenty years.

DR. M: I guess we might say we’re semi-tough, you and I. Hero wannabes, too soft for the job.

CAPTAIN: I doubt I’ll ever say that about you. It takes a ton of courage to walk into that waiting room every day.

DR. M: And it takes another ton to look under the bed.

Rob Burnside is a retired firefighter and paramedic.


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  • DoubtfulGuest

    sorry, double post.

    • Rob Burnside

      S’okay. Gives me the opportunity to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year

      • DoubtfulGuest

        Thanks! And the same to You and yours! :)

  • DoubtfulGuest

    Very nice post, RB. Thank You to all doctors, nurses, firefighters and paramedics this holiday season!

    • Rob Burnside

      Thanks, DG. Your dad was a firefighter and you know how it goes. Holidays are difficult. One more thing–good patients make good practitioners. (~)

  • http://onhealthtech.blogspot.com Margalit Gur-Arie

    Beautiful, Rob…. Thanks for sharing….

    • Rob Burnside

      And thanks for making so much sense so much of the time, Margalit. Magnifique! You’re at the top of my clone list. R.

  • guest

    Very touching piece.

    • Rob Burnside

      You know the holidays…thanks, guest!

  • Ron Smith

    Hi, Rob. Very good post.

    Just the other day one of my adolescent patients, now age 15, was diagnosed with an inoperable pontocerebellar cancer. Its a high grade.

    I’m just sick about it. I’ve know the family and kids for years. I’m a 30 year veteran, so I’ve seen this and similar things before.

    It just doesn’t get any easier for me even after thirty years. Sometimes it gets right up next to my own heart.

    Even I walked my own youngest daughter to her passing after a major brainstem bleed preceded a diagnosis of brain death. I had had to be bother a father and physician for her. I think our medical quest should be to heal as best we can, walk through life with our patients, and when all fails, see them with dignity through the portal of passing.

    Bad stuff happens and the why’s remain unanswered for the most part. Medicine is about applying the best science we now to this frail flesh, as we march from birth to death. Along that path, humility, sympathy, and even empathy are the band-aids over the medical ointment.

    This is the second child with brain cancer in the last ten years. The first one is alive and cured still. We do all for all so that we might save some.

    Warmest regards and Merry Christmas,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

    • Rob Burnside

      There’s quite a bit of poetry in your writing, Ron. And for some things, only poetry will do. Thank you, for all the above and more. Rob

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