Dana Jennings's story:
I have prostate cancer, but it sometimes seems as if…the cold intent of many people was to translate me into an abstraction, to deny my damaged and tiresome flesh-and-bloodness.
My insurer did not want to hear that my radical open prostatectomy last July would demand a higher level of care because previous abdominal surgery had created a tortuous internal topography of scar tissue and adhesions. My insurer, despite the insight and strong protests of my doctors, kept insisting that any knife would do. Was Sweeney Todd available?
And some doctors I spoke with before my surgery – not my current team at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey – seemed to regard me as a rare pelt, a fascinating wrinkle in their volume business in prostates.
Cancer is a crucible in which we patients are somehow, we hope, reborn. It's a rite of passage as resonant as any other – a graduation, a baptism, a wedding – and should be treated that way. Some days, maybe because I'm still undergoing treatment, I don't want to hear about another stat, another study, another hare-brained cure. How about a smile, a kind word, and a hug?
The bewilderment, shame and fear often stun men into a passive and depressed silence. Nurses and doctors say that many men barely speak during treatment and office visits, letting their wives, partners or children do the talking. They are quiet waiting room wraiths, perfecting their thousand-yard stares. And if they speak, it's in murmurs, as if cancer required whispers. No one scratches you behind the ears and says "Good boy" for being mute.
Because I had surgery at a teaching hospital, I woke up each morning to the rustle and jostle of a gang of residents. Young crows with bright and clever eyes, they flapped into my room – almost like Keystone Kops in white coats – to take a poke at the old crow.
I don't want to be too tough on them, because they're only kids, and they have so much to learn in such a short time. But to most of them, I suspect, I was just a case, one of each morning's many medical exhibits.
I preferred the humane, morphine-woozy middle-of-the-night conversations with the aides who took care of me. The guy who talked about superhero movies after checking out the Iron Man figurine my sons had given me. And the guy who, as he gently drained my ileostomy pouch – not related to my cancer – told me how he'd had to wear a temporary pouch after he'd been shot when he was young and stupid.
Dana's Advice: To keep from being reduced to a cipher, a mere "case," you need to be conscious and verbal. As a patient, when you don't speak, when you try to take on the cool and detached manner of a doctor, all you become is "meat," quiet meat.
Read a story about compassionate doctors.
Thanks to Dana Jennings for his source article in the December 16 issue of the New York Times.
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Dana Jennings's story: