Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Gardener

By the time the man slammed the truck door with a satisfying "whump" and squinted at the cloudless sky the heat had wrapped itself around him as if he had sat too close to a campfire. He dropped the rear gate and began to carefully gather up his tools. After walking down a long set of wooden steps, he carried his rakes and shears across a narrow path to the crest of a hill where he saw a vast garden shimmering in the sunlight. Clusters of flowers bunched in front of him like giant piles of laundry. He traveled back and forth on the path, stacking bags of fertilizer next to spreaders and trimmers. When he had emptied his truck he stood smiling in front of the sea of color before him, grabbed his clippers and passed through the gate. Pulling off his gloves, he bent over a rosebush and dipped his nose into it. His eyes widened, and he quickly began to touch each flower, folding its petals between his finger and thumb. He rushed through the greenery, slapping at gladioluses and tugging on lilies. After a while he sat down at the entrance with his chin in his hands. As his shadow crept toward the beauty within, he surveyed the garden with amazement and disappointment - for it was filled with artificial flowers.

There is no quicker way to make oncologists feel worthless than to place them in a room filled with healthy people. Don't get us wrong - we love the idea of a world free from cancer, but until that miracle occurs we expect to be worked, and worked hard. Oncologists exist for two reasons - to help cancer die and to help cancer patients live. Deny us the opportunity to perform these tasks and we will shrivel like a pot of neglected geraniums. We are sustained by our duties toward our patients.

This would explain the strange sensations I had while lounging around on the beach last week. I didn't ponder much on it at first but after a few days could not help but realize that everyone at this resort looked perfectly well. It was as if I had been transported to the Land of the Healthy, which is not a particularly bizarre concept since the great majority of people one encounters during a typical day appear to be in similarly robust shape. This land, though, is not where oncologists reside and I felt as if I was on a space journey as I lay on the sand surrounded by healthy bodies of all colors (including pale and red). After spending years caring for people with cancer I felt adrift in this sea of baking merrymakers. Not one person there had any reason to ask for my assistance.

So why not just relax and enjoy the break from the stresses of the job?

Sounds fair to me - so relax I did, returning day after day to the hot sand, squeezing in between middle-aged men and teenagers, listening to idiotic conversations on cell phones (which are de rigueur apparently), watching parched families languish in the noonday sun as their orange flags marked "Beach Service" went neglected, reading the flying ads for 25 cent beers trailing behind a continuous stream of noisy airplanes. I rested well - and not a moment too long.

The oncologist on the beach is like the gardener at the flower show, for each backdrop delights the eye with displays of luster, vigor and beauty. At the end of the day however, both doctor and horticulturist hurry to the place where their tools rest, waiting to be put to use by sun-tanned arms. For those who tire of lying around, this wonderful place is where reality is sown - and the true meaning of life grows.


At 4:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful entry. I imagine I would have brought a squirt gun full of sun block, if I were in your place.


At 5:12 PM, Blogger Joan said...

Psssst, Doc -- I'll let you in on a secret. Whenever possible, we cancer patients go out -- especially on vacation -- incognito, so to speak. One of the things we're taking a vacation from is the cancer.

At least that's my plan for this summer.

Anyway -- I'm sure there were a fair number of potential patients among those folks on the beach. But when you're so far removed reality, lying on a tropical beach, who really wants to think about that, if they don't have to?

Glad you're back and well-rested.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Joan is right. Last week, I was walking into the Clinic thinking, 'I'm sick of Planet Cancer.' But I think it's different for patients. (I think when oncologists aren't on Planet Cancer, they're worrying about what might be going wrong back on the home planet. Oncology is so much a discipline careful observation and adjustment of plans.)

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Keith, RN said...

A lovely story of the clinician on vacation, the mind trying like hell to relax and be non-clinical. My nurse-self is hard to turn off, but I practice it on weekends and vacations. Keep up the good work.

At 5:21 AM, Blogger Internal Medicine Doctor said...

nice to have you back. sad to hear that you thought about work while on vacation- don't let that happen again.

Well rested? or is a vacation from your vacation in order?
BTW, thanks for the book recommendations.

At 7:50 PM, Blogger Lynne said...

Doc - It is a different world, isn't ... the world of the healthy and the world of the cancer patient. It feels that way from THIS side as well. I recall being amazed at the healthy-looking people I saw in the waiting room of my oncologist. People living with me.

I've just discovered your blog, and am enjoying it immensely. You are well-spoken (written), caring, and sensitive.

Your patients, I think, are fortunate to have you as their doctor.

I'm one of those nutty Bernie Siegel followers, believing that anything is possible.

Thank you for your words.

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