Curiosity and apprehension. I experience this tension as a young man ushers me through large daunting doors with “Authorized Personnel Only” posted in bold red letters. Inside, a massive machine dominates the room, and yet my focus turns to the patient lying on the table, face covered in a white mask holding his head still while the technician targets the malignant brain tumor.
“All right in there?” the specialist asks, and the patient, mouth sealed by the mask, gives a thumbs up.
The technician switches on Pink Floyd and explains to me that they allow patients to choose the music that will play during the procedure. Pink Floyd is my dad’s favorite artist.
The technician turns to the patient and says, “I brought your daughter in to see you.”
My father is a neurologist who self-diagnosed a brain tumor. He noticed a change in his gait and knew the diagnosis before his MRI. The neuroradiologist, a long-trusted colleague and friend, was reluctant to show him the scan. “I want to see it,” my dad stoically replied. After reading thousands of such images, he stared at a nasty high-grade tumor in the dominant hemisphere of a brain. His brain.
The subsequent week was a blur. With my family, I experienced the trauma of crossing the fragile line from health to illness.
During the first week after my father’s surgery, I had to accompany him on a midnight ambulance ride to the emergency room after I witnessed a seizure. Questions buzzed in my mind, and uncertainty was mixed with fear as I tried to provide support to my mother in the ER. The physician approached the bedside in an assertive yet calm manner. He worked swiftly, but remained attentive to my father, carefully explaining the course of treatment to us. Sitting on the floor of the small room, I watched and trusted the physician in the white coat.
Fast forward two years later. I’m fussing over what to wear to my white coat ceremony in my first week of medical school. My dad joshes that as long as I don’t leave the white coat in the apartment I’m good to go.
I’ve withstood plenty of warnings about choosing medicine as a career. Medicine-bashing might have turned me away, but my dad has shown me the opposite. He has always loved his job for what it is — a chance to meet people, learn about their lives, and best of all, help them out in the process. He says it’s his calling. After all these years of observing my dad’s work — helping him file at the office, watching him run out to late night calls or sip his coffee while dictating his cases — I now have the chance to don the coat as my first step in becoming a physician. I haven’t earned it yet, but the symbolism is meaningful.
My father struggles with lethargy and physical limitations, but thankfully, is stable at this time. We don’t know what the future holds, but who does? He smiled and hugged me with a “Hey, Doc!” greeting when I received my acceptance letter to medical school.
In caring for him, I have developed valuable insights that I hope to apply as a compassionate physician, as I wrote in my medical school application essay. I’m still sorting that out. From my own experience, I gathered the importance of clarity in patient communication and care, managing tough side effects, and attending to the needs of family members and caregivers. Quality of life matters — and so does fostering realistic hope.
The term “brain cancer” is often thrown around at random to signify the worst of diseases. The dreaded, point-of-no-return disease. “Well, at least she doesn’t have something like brain cancer,” a fellow student said in a small group session about patients with HIV. I sat with my story. It wasn’t time to share.
My family and I now view sickness in a vastly different way. A part of life? Yes. Something that you have to succumb to and accept the odds? Absolutely not. Statistics exist; we don’t need to dwell on them. Someone is always in the “tail” of the bell curve, my father emphasizes. It might as well be him.
My dad is a unique person with his own unique struggle. It is his story. I am now creating my own story of our family’s ordeal — it includes becoming a doctor.
A white mask in the radiation chamber helped to save my father’s life. He is no longer a practicing neurologist, but he is forever a doctor. During my first week of medical school, he used a rolling walker to ambulate slowly into the auditorium, and then sat in the front row with my mom at our white coat ceremony where a special needs sign had reserved his seat. An alumnus of the school helped me don my crisp, clean white coat as I gazed at them and recited my oath.
Shoshana Weiner is a medical student who blogs at the Doctor’s Tablet. This article originally appeared in Current Oncology.
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