Over the years I’ve often referenced the Writing Is Good Medicine® program that I created while a medical humanist at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. Whether in essays for this blog or presentations at medical conferences, I would use examples of patient’s writings to emphasize what may have been untold thoughts and feelings, moving the spotlight from illness to the person.
A Medical Humanist's Notes
As I’m getting older, I think about what has passed, passing and to come. I am catapulted back in time to my tenure as medical humanist at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center (2002-2005). What comes to mind is the celebratory ritual upon the completion of each patient’s treatment, which was an array of balloons and bouquet of flowers. It was a lovely gesture that most patients embraced with the belief they were cured. And many were—but there were no guarantees.
Recently, a colleague from time passed forwarded me a quote from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s book Truth and Method. He noted, “I thought of you as I read it and that you might appreciate this enough to pass it on.” I was unfamiliar with Gadamer’s work.
During this time of COVID-19 we’re all experiencing some kind of disconnect from others. Our lives are out of sorts. To be sure, none of us want to be in this situation.
As children we would whisper a message into a friend’s ear and they would pass along what they heard. Further removed from their source, the message would sound less like the original. Usually, playing the “Telephone Game” is light hearted and produces laughs.
“When I was first diagnosed, I felt I didn’t need you,” she said. “After all, I am a nurse. I know how to get what I need in the medical system. I speak their language. Now I find that I need your help.”
As a writer I often turn to the work of philosophers, artists and poets to expand my understanding of the human experience. As a medical humanist my knowledge comes firsthand from patients, their loved ones and healthcare providers.
Not being a clinician, I was afforded a lot of latitude at the cancer center in Bennington. Sometimes, the staff didn’t know what to do with this medical humanist among them. On one occasion, I suggested we present an exhibit of abstract art.
She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 2 years ago. Surgery and countless infusions of chemotherapy, with no sustained remissions, have not deterred her from continuing to work in her studio. Options for treatment are now limited as is her energy level.
Her doctor has requested a medical humanist consult to assess this patient’s understanding of treatment options and prognosis. “I was not prepared,” she tells me, “to hear my doctor say ‘I hoped I would not have to have this conversation with you.’”
A patient with advanced lung cancer asked his oncologist about how many years he could expect to live. The doctor replied, “How would you feel about 10 years?” The patient confessed he would be pleased with that prediction even though he had a hunch that it was too optimistic.