Why I Am an Oncologist
As the massive train entitled "My Career" chugged along during my third year of medical school, I heaved a sigh of relief. I had finally gained control of the locomotive and settled in, a master conductor now in charge of the journey toward the specialty to which my eternal fidelity had been pledged - Pediatrics. Despite receiving some thinly disguised ridicule from my friends the precocious ophthamologists, I prided myself on my choice. I loved caring for babies and kiddies. In fact, working around the squealing cherubs seemed to rejuvenate me, as if a distant memory of blissful days when life was all diapers and mush had been unlatched. My course was set - the fait accompli was acknowledged and I prepared my sculptor to carve my likeness with a small teddy bear clamped onto the stethoscope.
Pediatrics was hereby tapped as my life's calling. Now all I had to do was finish the rest of my schooling and coast the mighty train toward a top residency program. I began to wear bow ties with little dinosaurs on them.
It was with this admittedly smug attitude that I started my next rotation - on the Cancer Ward, a sober floor placed in a small corner of the hospital. This ward was legendary in breeding agony - uncontrollable sobbing, dark shadows lining the face, shoulders sagging, near apocalyptical melancholy - and that was just in the medical students.
Fighting this aura of foreboding I steeled my nerve, stashed a few happy thoughts in a safe place for future emergency use, and stoked the engine for a four-week tour of the land of the doomed.
My speeding train was about to lurch violently off the tracks.
The first few days on the ward were uneventful. The daily routine was quite predictable. Patients would arrive sick from either one of two possibilities - their cancer or their chemotherapy. No surprises seemed to vex the staff here. I spent my time as efficiently as I could, given the fact that our attending seemed determined to conduct morning rounds at a speed reminiscent of the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. I began to display the typical signs of a student working on the Ward - a sort of shuffling, reserved attitude of helpless resignation.
Then a patient named Connie checked in.
Connie was a young woman with Hodgkin disease who had relapsed after a prolonged course of chemotherapy including a bone marrow transplant. Seriously ill, her lungs were riddled with tumor and she struggled for breath as she walked. She entered the Cancer Ward in an attempt to reverse this ominous course and I was given the task of attending to her needs while our team devised a plan to attack her malignancy. She wanted to get out by next week if possible, the intern explained to me, as she was anxious to resume her studies.
She was anxious to resume her studies. "What studies?" I asked.
As I stood in the hallway, the resident supplied the answer that forever changed my life:
"She is a fourth-year medical student here."
There is a small window in the development of a young man or woman that opens at a time when a desperate need is present for direction, passion, or a true destiny. Some never even recognize this event, let alone succeed in satisfying the emptiness that cries out "What is my purpose in life?" Lucky is the one who hears the answer; blessed is the one who realizes it as the truth. On that day I was too dumbfounded to grasp that from a distant summit my name had been called. A medical student was being denied the chance to become a healer because of a vile, contemptible disease and I was witness to it. Why was she selected and not me? What could anyone do to prevent this tragedy from unfolding? I pondered on this until my thoughts became a whirlpool of confusion.
Over the next month I cared for Connie and listened to her dreams of a life that we both knew would never be written. I was both her comforter and her torturer - she never knew when I walked into her room whether I was going to chat, or stab her with a needle. The irony of our friendship was obvious as we confronted each other day after day - me ascending to a shining future, she descending into the darkness of ruined promises. A profound sense of shame ran through me, but at the same time my work became more meaningful.
My time on the Ward ended and I moved on. Although I sampled from many interesting medical specialties that year, even before I heard of Connie's death I knew my direction had changed. My arms were now linked with those living with cancer. An unanticipated collision had fused two souls together and started a young doctor on his mission. Connie never realized it, but the final spark of her life was used to light a fire within me that still burns brightly. I hope to continue to use her flame to light the long path down which the oncologist must travel.