Thursday, April 27, 2006


Yesterday was a sad day at work for me. You may be thinking, of course it was, you work in an oncology clinic. It's true that I have a ringside seat for some special events in people's lives, their sickness or even death, but many times it's much more rewarding than a sad experience. Death isn't always the enemy.

Or the outcome, for that matter. Medications and treatments have come a long way in twenty years. Nausea and pain medicines are much better. And more people every day are living with cancer instead of dying from cancer.

But yesterday there was a scene that was heartwrenching for me.

A patient came in for her first chemotherapy treatment. Usually on the first day everybody is nervous, and most people cry. That's okay. But this lady was almost hysterical. She was obviously uneducated and poorly groomed. An older lady was with her carrying a 5 month old baby. We don't allow children in the treatment room, so we escorted them to one of the bedrooms.

I went in to start her IV. She was sitting up on the bed, baby in her lap. The baby was crying, screaming, and they pushed a toy in front of him, one with colors and things to move, but it was really too advanced for his age. They told me that he was 5 months old and had asthma. They kept pushing a bottle to him, but he wouldn't take it. Then they told me that he was really spoilled because he coughed a lot - knowing that if he coughed, they would pick him up.

I refrained from telling them that babies who are 5 months old don't have sense enough to be manipulative...

As I continued to get my IV supplies together and look for a vein I casuallly asked what the baby's name was.


My patient looked at the other lady and said:

Patient: What is his name?
Other Lady: Uhm, I don't know. I have too many grandchildren to keep up with.
Patient: I can't remember, either.

THey weren't looking at each other, dumbfounded, wondering. They obviously didn't know the baby's name, AND they acted like it wasn't an important piece of information that they should even know.

Me: You don't know his name?
Patient: I'm not his Mother, I'm his great-aunt.
Other Lady: Oh, it's something. He has a name.
Patient: Isn't it *name*?
Other Lady: Yeah, I guess it is.

At this time the Other Lady is still trying to push the bottle to the screaming, nameless baby. She takes off the top and smells it, making a face.

Other Lady: Well, no wonder he wouldn't take it. I think it's sour.

She left the room to make a bottle, leaving me with crying, nameless baby, and my patient.

I had another nurse come to start the IV. It was too terribly sad for me to even attempt a stick. It was all I could do to keep from crying on the spot. How could they not know his name? It's not like I asked what blood type he was, or how much he weighed, or if he'd gotten all of his shots...

The other nurse came to start the IV, but Other Lady hadn't come back with the bottle. I took the baby to the other room and swayed with him until he quit crying. He liked John Denver.

After the IV was started I took him back to my patient and he went back to crying. Eventually Other Lady left with him, saying that if he wasn't going to behave, she'd just take him back to his mother. She said that she didn't know how to get him to stop crying.

I bit my tongue.

I have helped people who live in squalor. I have held hands with people as they died. I have told people that they have cancer. I have done many things and been part of many situations where other people look at me and wonder how I can cope with all the sadness around me.

But this topped them all.


Anonymous said...

Oh,oh,oh. There is nothing fair in this world except what we make fair. VM

Busy Mom said...


Kate said...


nicole said...

That's so incredibly depressing! I haven't even seen this baby yet I'm worried about his welfare.

You feel awful knowing that a situation like this exists but at the same time you feel awful NOT wanting to know. And it feels even worse because there's really nothing you can do about it. :(

Nathan said...

Wow indeed.

One of the things which has become more clear to me while in medical school (there aren't many) is that people are not basically good. There is good in the world, and it is worth fighting for, but it will always be a struggle by kind hearted individuals against an indifferent crowd.

Vol Abroad said...

Oh my gosh, that is heartbreaking