In September I wrote a blog post titled “Losing a Child.” For those who read this, my pure intention was to describe how I feel almost on a daily basis when I treat not only adult patients, but more often how my pediatric patients evoke quite a bit of emotion out of me. That piece was triggered by the passing of a very dear patient named Cameron, whom was the boy who thought highly enough of me to want to be a part of the entire Ironman Louisville race in August. I’ve shared pictures before where Cameron was the first person at the finish line to greet me and he put my finisher’s medal around my neck.
One of things that has always troubled me as a cancer doctor, is the thought of what families think of me after their family member passes. I have attended occasional funerals for my patients, and there you usually receive some mixed emotions. Some families are very thankful and happy to see me, but then there have been a few occasions where I sense their disdain, almost as if I am being blamed for not saving their loved one. Often, and it may be my own perception, I feel this to be the case more times than not. With Cameron, I knew I did everything I could to help him and at every opportunity that I could, but there’s no preventing myself from feeling guilty that in the end we weren’t able to save him. I have attempted to discuss these feelings and emotions with other physicians that I work with (many don’t really want to have this type of a conversation at all), and my wife hears it a lot from me; but I can honestly say that every time one of my patients passes away, I do feel to a certain degree like I have failed them. One of the biggest ways that I project my emotions as I have to do considering how much I deal with death and dying, is to appreciate the little victories or benefits that I was able to provide – less suffering, less pain, more time with their family, etc. Deep down, as a physician though, you always wonder if the families see this the same way.
Last week when I was in clinic, I received a text message on my phone through facebook saying, “Hey Doc. We’re bringing lunch to the clinic. Would love to see you again. Please come over to the Peds clinic at lunch time if able.” The message was from Cameron’s mother. As soon as I wrapped up my morning clinic, I walked over to the Peds clinic. As I walked down the hall, the nurses were announcing “He IS here, great!” [They were under the impression I was still in Mexico.] Within moments of seeing Cameron’s mother, my answer to what she thought of me was instantly answered. She did not consider me to be a failure or hold anger against me – quite the opposite. She mother was jumping out of a chair to run over and give me a hug. The first thing she said to me was “How was Mexico?” and then after telling her about my race and describing how I was ready to drop out, she reminded me that I had a little angel in heaven making sure that I would never not finish another Ironman. She then proceeded to share with me some of the mementos that were made for her from the flower arrangements given for Cameron’s wake and funeral. She was obviously still very sad and broken hearted over Cameron’s passing, but you could tell it was very soothing for her to visit with the entire care team, as we were both intermittently tearing up as we shared some of our Cameron moments and memories.
In the next room was Cameron’s father, who also seemed very excited to see me. He immediately jumped to give me a hug as I entered. His next gesture, almost in one fail swoop after hugging me was pushing me towards the lunch table as he put a plate in my hand, instructing me to “eat several pieces of fudge so that I look a little less anorexic.” We talked for about half an hour, again sharing some of our Cameron moments. He shared with me his own excitement from being able to be a part of the Ironman in Louisville, and he was so excited to hear about my most recent race in Mexico. He even reminded me that I could have benefited in Mexico from Cameron’s great idea for getting more donations in Louisville – Cameron joked that he was going to bring his airsoft rifle and shoot every person in front of me “just a little,” so that they’d slow down.
Having lunch with Cameron’s parents helped me to get some closure and realize that they are indeed not disappointed, but rather thankful for everything we tried to do. I still cannot imagine how hard it must be for them to go through the holidays this year, but I could tell that it was similarly very helpful for them to come back and see everyone on the treatment team. The reality is that for the past few years that Cameron has gone through treatment, they have spent so much time, especially hard times, with the doctors, nurses, social workers, and everyone else at the hospital, that we really have generated a new family for them. Cameron’s father was quick to point out that they plan on coming back in 2 weeks to bring lunch again. I don’t really mind if they bring lunch at all, its just nice to know that someone is so appreciative of the care I tried to provide, even if in the end we weren’t successful.
Cameron presenting me with my finisher’s medal and his father, Scott