Sunday, April 19

Compassion (posted on Feb 4th, 2009)

"Why me? Why me." That question was directed at me somewhen mid-2005, and it still haunts me. God willing, I will want it to haunt me for as long as I practice Medicine. I would like to share this life-shaping experience with anyone willing to spend a fraction of their time reading this. I could still recall her face; although, as time goes on, I'm beginning to only remember the idea of her face. The clarity is fading, but not the memory of our exchange. She was a thirty-three year-old lady, her face as sweet as her demeanor. Her two young sons were running around her bed. Her daughter, not even one year old, was at home with her mother. Her husband was always by her side, keeping their boys in check, and all the while stealing worried glances at her. The thing was, she had breast cancer. She had been admitted for a mastectomy. I couldn't remember which side, but when she came out of the operation theater, one of her breasts had been amputated. I could never imagine how it would be for someone to go through that, and could still fuss about her children's lunch and clothes. That would have been fine if it were left at that. She had been told that she could be discharged home in a few days, once we were sure her wound was healing. I was a houseman at that time, but I suggested to my registrars for a liver ultrasound to be done. Just to be safe, and I was thinking it would be a hassle for her to come back from Seremban, what with her small children and all. The result came back positive. She had liver metastasis, and we had not detected that earlier. For one, the management would have been different. But more importantly, my registrar had to tell her that her cancer was advanced, and even with chemotherapy, it would not change her prognosis. She life was counted, in months. I was there when she and her husband were informed about the result. She turned to me, and directed the question right at me. "Why me?" The only answer I could give her was, "I'm sorry, Kak. I really am." She started crying then, and against my better judgment, I hid behind my registrar. It was already too much for me to handle. Imagine how much harder it was for her. A couple of months later, during Raya, my aunt from Seremban asked me whether I knew this lady who had breast cancer, and had three small children. Recognition immediately set in, and when I asked further, there was no mistaking we were talking about the same person. Her parents and my aunt were next door neighbors. Talk about the world being small. I received a call from my aunt in January 2006. She asked me whether I remembered the lady she had mentioned about during Raya. She had just passed away. For long moments, I was silent. In retrospect, it may have been easier if I didn't take the time to get to know her in the first place. Then she would only be another patient who passed away. Not a vivid image of a lively and vibrant woman who had to leave behind three small children without a mother. One of them was still an infant. Nowadays, I face a patient's death so often I only think about the agony of filling out all the paperwork. I sound heartless, don't I? There were, and still are, some, whose family I had the opportunity getting to know. Those who're left behind when they passed. And truth be told, it never got easier. Sometimes, family members would call me and invite me to the funeral, and some would stop me to thank me for taking care of the deceased. It didn't make things easier for me, though. So why did I become, and stayed a doctor? I could be a photographer, or a writer, or anything else I wanted to. To this day I don't know exactly why. This, though, I do know. The experience I just shared was a humbling one, and I would remember it as long as I have my memory intact. Sure, it would have been easier if I didn't take the time to get to know my patient's background and family. But there are instances where I've been a greater help simply because I found out a little bit more about the patient. That would be a story for another time, but on those days, I slept better, knowing I had somehow touched another person's life, and made their burden a little lighter.