Friday, October 13, 2006

Doctor Without Heart

I went to the hospital today to visit the mother of one of Josie’s schoolmates who has just had a lumpectomy for Stage I breast cancer. While I was there, her doctor came to see her. She asked him about the results of her surgery and the histology report that he had received from the lab. Typical questions: “What grade was the tumor? What does Stage I mean? Is it curable?" His answer: “You don’t need to know. Just leave it to me.”

She tried asking him over and over again, in many different ways, for details of what the histology report said and whether her cancer was curable. At one point, she asked, “I read on the Internet that the survival rate for Stage I is 90-97%. What do you think?” His answer: “Don’t read the Internet. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I was watching my friend grasping for words of hope, even a hint of something positive from her doctor, or at least some basic information and facts about her condition. But instead of addressing her questions, he rolled his eyes, waved his hands in front of him as if deflecting the silliness of her questions, and treated her as if she were an ignorant child. I was shocked by his dismissive and disrespectful attitude.

After about 15 minutes of her trying desperately to get him to tell her something, he finally said, “I can guarantee five years.” That left my friend thinking she had five years to live. Before he’d arrived, she’d been so upbeat and positive, saying, “Thank God it’s only Stage I!” She went from being relieved and hopeful to feeling despondent, thinking she could have only five years left.

I was so angry at the doctor, but I couldn’t interfere. All this woman needed was reassurances, even plain facts (Her chances of survival ARE in the 90s. Stage I breast cancer IS completely curable.). He didn’t need to tell her how many years she had to live. She wasn’t asking for that. He could’ve just said she had an excellent chance of beating her cancer and she had reason to hope for a normal life span. Why were these words so impossible for him to say? What was wrong with this doctor?

I plan to write a letter to him and to the medical association about this exchange I witnessed later, when my friend is no longer under his care. I don’t think he should be allowed to cause anyone else such anguish again. He might be a good surgeon. He just has no idea how to treat a patient as a human being. If he’s a good surgeon, then he should just do the surgery part and let another doctor handle the patient contact. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t let that man near a cancer patient again.

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