Submitted by Butch Oberhoff, a patient at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center
It’s almost cliché. You hear, “You have cancer,” and you wonder if you’ve been given a death sentence. You know it’s going to be a difficult process and you’ll be handing control of your life to someone else.
I was lucky. Incredibly lucky. I was diagnosed with a very treatable form of cancer. As long as I followed the proven, well-documented, highly researched treatment plan, the numbers were in my favor. But what if I chose – as was my right – to decline the very difficult treatment regimen of daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy?
OK, color me a compliant patient.
I’ve worked in health care my entire adult life, almost all of it in EMS, at an amazing agency that treats employees well, encourages care and compassion for patients and tries very hard to do the right thing. We’re not perfect, but most of the agency’s leadership grew up in the organization and started off as clinicians, caring for patients and doing their best to help others. There are countless stories of our medics quietly going the extra mile for our patients, in ways big and small, sometimes on their own time or at their own expense. They don’t do it for attention; they do it because they care.
But I have to wonder if those of us in health care sometimes lose our way. Long hours, doing more with less, increased demands for more detailed documentation and the frustration of the never-ending changes in electronic charts and medical records can distract us from the reason we’re there to begin with. We’re trying to make sure we don’t miss a check-off box, fill out a form incorrectly or, heaven forbid, do the patient a disservice by not wording their condition correctly and causing a claim to be denied.
But does this mean we’re focused more on the laptop than on the patient?
Proper documentation is important, to be sure. But it doesn’t give us a pass on actually caring for the patient. The patient needs compassion and communication. Face-to-face communication. Two-way communication. Not someone talking over their shoulder as they type, staring at a screen. The patient needs to feel they’re part of the care plan and know what to expect from a test, a procedure or even a whole course of treatment -- and that kind of information should not be communicated by handing over a pamphlet or a website address or by using your best robotic monotone as you go over your checklist, so you can document that you provided patient education.
Stop it. You know better. If you don’t, try being a patient. Your perspective will change drastically.
I don’t mean the kind of patient who has a cold or an infection, and you already know what’s going on and it’s stupid that you have to waste your time going to see the doctor because you’ve been doing this for 20 years and you already know what you need and blah, blah, blah…
I mean the kind of patient where you have to turn over control to other people - strangers - in order to live, facing a disease that you know does not always have a good outcome and that will not get better on its own. I mean the kind of patient who has to surrender to debilitating treatment, who has to accept the loss of some bodily functions and the loss of control of others. The kind of patient who has to accept that he will be dependent on others for a while, among other indignities.
Don’t you think that patient deserves better than to have to ask questions over your shoulder while you type? Here’s a news flash – ALL patients deserve better than that.
So let me tell you about Emily.
Emily was my chemotherapy nurse. On my first day, she pulled up a seat next to me and we had a conversation. Face to face, eye to eye. She asked me how I felt and how much I understood about chemotherapy. As she explained what was happening and what I could expect, she confirmed that I understood what she was telling me. And then she listened. She wasn’t looking at a clipboard or a computer screen. She was looking at me and listening. She was kind and patient with me, and just as kind to my wife. Emily was honest with me about how my life was about to change and how the treatment could affect me. And because she prepared me, it was somehow less scary. She assured me that I could call the chemotherapy unit when things got rough, because there was always something they could try, and she was true to her word. She went out of her way to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. She cared, and she let me know she cared, every single week. In fact, she made sure I knew how much she cared. She was there for every treatment and made me feel like it was her mission to get me through this.
And it wasn’t just Emily. Every single person in the Mays Cancer Center in San Antonio was incredible. Every. Single. Person. I couldn’t get over just how much of a culture of caring existed in that building. I experienced smiles, patience, face-to-face, two-way communication, and lots of it. There was the woman who checked me in and cheered me and the other patients on as the radiation treatments took their toll, day after day. There was the staff in the radiation oncologist’s office whose efforts to make sure I was comfortable went far beyond just being polite. The wonderful and considerate technicians in the “vault,” as they called it, who would help me pick the right music, played at the right level to help me get through each session of being strapped to the table. When my hematology oncologist asked me to get back with her on something, she gave me her cell number.
Wait, what?! My DOCTOR gave me her cell number?! On what planet does that happen?
My calls were returned. My questions were answered. When I asked for help, I didn’t have to ask twice. Clerical staff, technicians, social workers, nurses and physicians all seemed to be on a mission of caring and doing all they could to ease what I and all those other patients were going through. They did this cheerfully, enthusiastically and compassionately. They were considerate of my time, my fears and my seemingly constant need for more information about what was going on. By communicating with me, they made me feel less helpless.
At each step, each one of these clinicians could have been justified in stopping at merely being polite and professional. As clinicians, we sometimes pride ourselves on doing just that – and for some of us, even that basic level sets too high a bar. But when we stop long enough to not only treat our patients but to care for them, that is when we really touch lives. When we communicate with them in a meaningful way, we give them back some control over their lives. When we are compassionate enough to recognize what another person is going through, we can truly help with healing and ease suffering. And that, I believe, is why most of us chose health care.
I’m blessed to be able to say that, thanks to a lot of prayers from a lot of people and the efforts of those at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, I am in remission. I am profoundly grateful for the people who provided my treatment and for how they treated me. I will never forget them, and I will never forget the lesson they taught me about how much all of us in health care can mean to our patients.
To learn more about our team of experts at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, visit UTHealthsaMDAnderson.org, or call 210-450-1000.