Sunday, October 10, 2010

October 10, 2010 - A Doctor Who Gets It

Betsy de Parry, a lymphoma survivor and blogger whom I frequently cite in these pages, has published a truly remarkable letter from an oncologist and specialist in rare adrenal cancers, Dr. Gary Hammer. It’s an open letter he wrote to cancer survivors everywhere, in response to an open letter to doctors Betsy had written a few days before.

Dr. Hammer notes in his letter that virtually all his patients die under his care. That’s because the prognosis for adrenal cancers is generally poor. The best he can promise his patients is to buy them a little time, and to enlist them as allies as he and his colleagues chip away at the frustrating search for a cure.

It takes a very special doctor to persevere in medical practice under such circumstances. At the very least, a “thick skin” would seem to be an emotional necessity – surely, not easy to maintain alongside a pleasing bedside manner. (I have a feeling, though, after reading his letter, that Dr. Hammer is one of those rare individuals who can integrate both.) The type of medicine he practices also affords him a rather remarkable vantage-point from which to view the experience of patients living through their last days.

Both letters are worth reading in their entirety, but I’d like to share with you, here, a selection from Dr. Hammer’s. It shows he’s truly been listening to his patients, in the deepest sense:


“Perhaps the most frightening words a person might hear in his or her lifetime are ‘You have cancer.’ This truth revealed fractures our reality. It challenges our relationship to our inner world, forcing us to re-evaluate who we are.

However, embedded within this experience lived is a gift. The little-known secret is that the gift is not just for the afflicted but also for their entire circle of relationships, including spouse, children, friend and caregiver alike. The only requirements to receive this unique communion: vulnerability and presence.

As a physician engaged in the care of people with a particular rare cancer – where those under my care almost always die – I am thankful for the sharing of truths that have been unveiled to me by these men and women in this, their most vulnerable and internal sanctuary.

In this place of finding themselves dying, brave people have let me into their space where three truths seem to be unveiled again and again as defining gifts of sacredness. These truths can be embraced as three reflections of the word ‘presence:’ conscious engagement, the experience of present time (the razor-sharp now) and the gift of emotional authenticity.

Through these patients, I have come to an understanding that if we are fortunate to actually have time while we are ill, and we are brave enough, what happens as our vanity, our beauty and ultimately our physical identity is stripped away is that we are granted a chance to become our own sacredness — as it becomes all that is left.

Sadly, when people die suddenly, they rarely have the luxury of such time, such a place. But equally as tragic is that most folks never risk to venture to this vulnerable place while living when they do have time. Having our own death close by in life — be it through illness or conscious reflection — sharpens our internal lens by stripping away all that is not present, all that is not presence.”


Based on my experience, I’d say that having a deadly cancer is something like getting off the local train that is the normal pace of life and boarding another. The new conveyance is a bullet train that bears us on rapidly, roaring through many of the normal stages of adult development without stopping, to a windswept, elevated platform overlooking a barren plain – the place where we may contemplate our own death. It’s the terminus, the end of that particular line, a station most people will never glimpse until they are far advanced in years, if at all (those who die suddenly may never see it). We who have wrestled with the cancer angel are familiar with that stark vista, and also know how bewildering this headlong, high-speed journey can be.

Even more bewildering is the return trip. It happens in the flash of an eye. If we’re fortunate enough to see our disease go into remission – or to enter into the extended watch-and-wait “treatment” that’s really a non-treatment – we may suddenly find ourselves seated again on the lurching local milk-run. Around us are our fellow-passengers, snoozing away to the soft, rocking motion of the train. We look around the cabin and at first see only others who are sleeping.

But wait, over there, across the aisle: was that a movement? It was. Another person awake. She and I make fleeting eye contact. Yes. It’s someone else who was on the express, someone who knows.

And what’s that, several rows ahead? Someone else is stirring. A passenger yawns and stretches before he turns around, idly scanning the passenger compartment. He gives me a brief nod of recognition before laying his head back down on the shoulder of his sleeping wife, trying (perhaps in vain) to join her in slumber. Another fellow-traveler. When he closes his eyes, does the stark vision of that empty, elevated platform, surrounded by barren, moonlit prairie, rise up in his imagination?

It’s a wonderful thing to encounter a physician who’s taken the time to know his patients in such an existential way, to try to vicariously experience something of what we’ve been through.

Blessings to you, Dr. Hammer. May your tribe increase. And “thank you” to Betsy for initiating this fruitful exchange.

4 comments:

Betsy said...

Carl, Thank you for sharing Dr. Hammer's letter on your oh-so-wonderful blog and for adding your own compelling insight. Dr. Hammer is indeed a remarkable physician, but he is first a human being who cares about his fellow human beings, and I believe that he stands as a shining example of what we all deserve when we are ill.

For me, one of the most powerful messages in Dr. Hammer's letter was the reminder to risk living fully - to be brave enough to become our own sacredness. Those of us who live with lymphoma usually have the time to do so. The question is: will we? I hope so.

Wishing you all the best, Betsy

Whidbey Woman said...

Awesome post.

dr.gregory b. harris said...

Carl,
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Kathy Garolsky said...

Thanks for sharing this good post.Hoping to hear more from you.Thanks.