When I was about fifteen my Dad was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. He had just turned 40. My fun, funny, creative, artistic Dad who loved horses and baseball and boats and always had time for an off-the-beaten-path adventure had something wrong. Impossible.
Back then Hodgkin’s Disease was tantamount to a death sentence. I didn’t know that. I think my Mom she wanted to protect me, wanted me to believe he would be all right and never told me anything other than that. I believed that “modern medicine” had all the answers so I accepted what she told me.
I went off to college about four hours away from home when I was only 16. Going to college that young is not something I would recommend. To anyone. Particularly if you have aspirations of being a doctor. Pre-med was like being thrown into a swimming pool full of piranhas. The competition for medical school slots was cutthroat even that early in the game and the pressure was on. All the time. A car was out of the questions so I came home as often as we could afford the train fare which was about once every two months.
When I got a driver’s license midway through my Freshman year I would drive my Dad into the city in our Mercury sedan for his chemotherapy treatments every time I came home. I didn’t know any real doctors except the docs who saw me when I was a little kid so this was really the first exposure I ever had to “adult” medicine. The entire experience was intimidating. Overwhelming.
The first time I drove him in I met the doctor who was in charge of the chemo. I don’t remember his name or what he looked like but I do remember thinking he was about my Dad’s age. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and sat on the side of my Dad’s bed. There was something intimate about that. Reassuring. He took the time to make him feel special. I couldn’t hear much but I think the doc talked about the side effects he would have. I hung back, reluctant to break the connection between the two of them, the doctor and my Dad. At one point I think my Dad cried softly. I turned away. When I looked back the doctor had his hand on my Dad’s arm. And the last thing he said was: “Do you have any other questions?” And then…”you’re doing well…keep it up.”
My Dad and I didn’t say much to each other on the ride home. He put his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes. I wanted to say something didn’t have any idea about how to begin so all I did was appreciate the unspoken confidence in my driving.
I never forgot how kind and caring and gentle that doctor was. I promised myself that if I ever made it through pre-med, ever made it through medical school, I would be that doctor. Promised myself that if I ever actually became a doctor I would speak that way to patients. Explain everything. Make sure they knew everything I wanted them to know. And make sure they had a chance to ask me all the questions they had.
My Dad passed a little over a year later. I remember all the details of that day. And the lesson. All these years later, the lesson has remained.