Saturday, May 17, 2014

A confession of willful ignorance

I came across this article, "The Day I Started Lying to Ruth," written by an oncologist about his wife death from cancer. Many parts of it resonated - the idea of unfulfilled aspirations and promises, explicit and implicit; the medical decisions that never felt like true choices, because of course he was going to try everything possible, what else was there?; and the strange loneliness now of having "plenty of people to do things with, but nobody to do nothing with."

But the article also made me grateful for my relative medical ignorance throughout the majority of Scott's illness. Unlike the author, I didn't know what the end would look like, or even basic facts about his cancer type. That first month after Scott was diagnosed, I looked up one paper on neuroendocrine carcinoma, and the survival statistics were terrifying. I consoled myself that the paper was old (outdated, I decided), and didn't read anything further. I think Scott was surprised, maybe a little hurt, that I didn't take more interest in the medical details of his cancer. For me, it wasn't a completely conscious decision to avoid learning about it, but I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge and did not take steps to fill it. It was easier to just think, "Scott's cancer is really rare. There's not enough research to be able to draw any conclusions." Ignorance wasn't exactly bliss, but it was at least protective.

By the time we covered cancer in school, Scott was very weak. Learning the details of neuroendocrine carcinoma hit painfully close to home, but I didn't need protection from the information any more. I already understood that he wasn't going to be among the very small minority who surived five years.

Scott was diagnosed two weeks before I started med school, and he died during our cancer unit; my medical education (and practice) will always be inseparable from his experience as a patient. There are times when I see him very clearly in patients. I've been thinking a lot lately about whether and how I'll hold on to that compassion when I move into third year (and beyond) and start seeing a lot of patients and being a lot busier. I know that Scott will always be part of me, and that the things I've learned over the past 18 months will never be unlearned, but I wonder how accessible it will be. I worry about those lessons not being so close to the surface, about lapses in memory, about other things coming along and tamping down, crowding out what's inside right now.

And then I remind myself not to worry, because I'm thinking about him now. And the future has't arrived yet, only the present. A grey fox just jumped the fence into my parents' backyard and rooted around the grass below the birdfeeders. And a red, red cardinal was out there earlier, singing. The trees are just starting to bud. There's still ice on the lake, but it comes and goes depending on the wind. The full moon the past few nights has been casting bright rays through my bedroom window. I'm glad to be where I am. There's still grief in looking back and in thinking about unfullfilled aspirations and promises. But I will not lose what is in the past. I will not lose Scott and the life I had with him. As for what might have been, a friend suggested this: "Pray that the dream comes back to you another way."


Tiffany Neal said...

Thank you for sharing. Love you Libby!

Tori said...

<3 Thinking about you two. <3