I was recently reading the transcript of the “Voices from the Lived World of Illness” video, which the Center for Communication in Medicine produced in 2003. The 4 patients featured in the video shared candid observations about their experiences. In previous blogs I’ve referenced some of their comments. Yet, upon re-reading their words, I am reminded that their perspectives are as relevant today as they were 18 years ago.
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.
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.
In 2002, around the time that the Writing is Good Medicine® program was launched at the cancer center in Bennington, the Center for Communication in Medicine was also offering the Doctors Conversation Hour to hospital physicians.