Saw the movie “50/50” the other night. My friend wanted to see it but she wasn’t sure if I wanted to. After all, I had lived through a harrowing cancer struggle and I might not be in the mood to be entertained by what was billed as a tough, funny tale of one guy’s similar battle.
I loved it.
It was true, beautifully-written and brutally-honest. It was laugh-out loud funny, hankie-grabbing moving and incredibly well-acted. (I told my friend that it helped that I knew the writer, Will Reiser, survived his cancer. Otherwise I would have cried buckets rather than cups. This isn’t a plot spoiler: he was doing pre-movie publicity.)
For a few of the scenes, I felt like Reiser had a camera behind me when I was meeting some of my oncologists. When the character Adam first meets with the physician who tells him he has cancer, the doctor, clearly uncomfortable, never looks him in the eye. Sitting behind a desk, he speaks doctor-speak and quickly directs Adam’s attention to the MRI on the computer, where he proceeds to talk in even more complicated doctor-speak. Meanwhile, Adam (who is expertly portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in shock, trying to comprehend any of what the doctor has just told him. When he asks a basic question, the oncologist suggests he follow up with the medical staff.
I felt like grabbing a remote and pausing the movie so I could explain to everyone in the theater how deadly accurate this is and how illustrative it is of changes that some doctors need to make in dealing with patients.
First let me say that I’ll be eternally grateful that I had the doctors I did and they treated me as they did. I’m still here after a lengthy journey with cancer.
I was a tough case -- hard to diagnose for months. My type of cancer doesn’t show up on any scans or blood tests. More than one doctor said I may have had a brand new strain. Two called it “Laura’s disease.” One, a cardiologist, told me he will never forget me and will think of me when he sees my case discussed at medical conferences in the future. My current oncologist, who is younger than me, says he’s never had a patient with my type of cancer and as long as he practices, he will never see one again.
I didn’t want to be the poster child for the most difficult to detect disease on earth. Couldn’t I just get regular cancer and go for the routine prescribed treatment?
While I was on the long path to diagnosis, I was getting sicker and sicker. When a brain biopsy finally revealed a rare type of lymphoma, a nurse practitioner came to my hospital bed and told me. She was so warm and friendly and caring as she told me the news, I felt lucky to have that type of cancer and lucky to be in that hospital.
But later, as I was treated by some of the top doctors, I never got a warm, friendly or caring vibe from them. They were just like the oncologist in the movie, brilliant but visibly uncomfortable speaking face-to-face with a patient. My husband and I spent many an appointment in a dark room looking at my latest brain MRI, while the doctor repeatedly zoomed back and forth (my eye sockets coming scarily at us) and said "hmmmm." So what does that mean? In plain English?
We got real answers later from their nurses or associates or, when I had a stem cell transplant, the transplant coordinator, who filled in all the blanks and the empty parts of me that needed nurturing and explaining and reassuring.
I can understand how this can happen. Visiting some of my doctors was a lot like the first appointment scene in “50/50” where Adam passes tragic patients in the hallway. The overcrowded waiting rooms of some of my doctors were depressing tableaus of fear and despair.
It was a revolving door of desperately-sick patients. These physicians didn’t have the luxury of time to spend with each patient: they just had time to deliver the medical bottom line and let someone else on staff explain it in human terms.
The problem with this scenario is that to the doctor, I was one in an unending line of seriously-ill people. To me, I was the most important person in the world at that moment. It’s my life we are talking about. So to hurry through it without taking the time to add some compassion left me feeling confused, terrified and cheated. Just like Adam in the movie.
I know, some doctors are just better at the science end of things than the human interaction part of practicing medicine. But seriously, how much time does it take to put on a caring face?
Because one of the hospitals where I was treated was a teaching hospital, I was a living lesson for unending groups of doctors, residents and interns. They would enter my room en masse. White coats and serious faces. The main doc carried my chart.
The routine usually went like this. The medical millipede would enter the room, stay at the foot of my bed. The doctor would ask me a few questions, jot a few notes, maybe check my heartbeat. Then the students would look at me as if trying to figure out what they had learned that day. Then they would shuffle out until the next time tomorrow when a new group made their rounds.
One day the man in charge asked me a question. If I could give some advice to an aspiring doctor, what would it be? Many pairs of eyes looked at me from the foot of my bed.
I said, “Be nice.”
Visibly amused, they shuffled out.
It wasn’t what I meant to say. I didn't mean to imply they were mean. I meant to say “Be kind and offer some compassion and look at me like I’m a person, not a medical case.”
Some of my nurses were wonderful at that. Because I was a regular in the in-patient chemotherapy ward for more than a year, they welcomed me with kind faces every month when I showed up. One nurse took an interest in my family and I in hers. She kissed me when she saw me each month. Another nurse, when I told her I was not coming back for the last monthly chemo (yay), cried. She would miss me, she said.
I don’t need kisses and tears from my doctors, but you get my point.
One hospital doctor stood out. When she would come into my room, she would not stand at the foot of my bed. She would come to my side, hold my hand and look into my eyes while she talked to me. She showed genuine compassion for what I was going through and didn’t act as if she were pressed for time.
It was nice.