On Friday, August 1, my dad was admitted to Loma Linda University Medical Center on Unit 9300. Hospitalizations such as this had been somewhat of a routine since his initial diagnosis of Stage IV metastatic colon cancer four and half years ago. However, this hospitalization was different for many reasons. For one, his body was beginning to show signs of giving up the battle that he had been fighting so valiantly for so long. The previous day, he had been told that the myelodysplasia that had resulted from continuously stimulating his bone marrow to produce more white blood cells, platelets, and red blood cells had progressed to full-blown leukemia. He was requiring several platelet and RBC transfusions each week and he was admitted to hospital this time for uncontrolled bleeding requiring platelet transfusion and unexplained spiking fevers. Despite the seemingly more and more grim prognosis, we remained hopeful that dad would pull through this just as he had with his many previous hospitalizations.
The other aspect that made this hospitalization different from all the rest was the fact that I had just begun my 3rd year of medical school and had completed a rotation on this unit just a few weeks prior during my time on the Gynecological Oncology service. Moreover, many of classmates were now rotating through the halls of 9300 and were even responsible for rounding on my father each day while on their Internal Medicine rotations. Each day I would dodge glances from residents, attending physicians, and students that may recognize me as I entered the hospital as a visitor instead of as a medical student. For months, I had been the one in the white coat standing on the outside of the curtain, now I was the sitting at a bedside on the inside of the curtain experiencing the same sights, sounds, places, people, and decisions but from an entirely new perspective.
As time progressed, it became apparent that my dad’s condition was in fact much worse than we had imagined and that we may be faced with saying goodbye sooner than we had hoped. We made the decision to take my dad home on Hospice on Friday, August 8 and merely three days later he passed away peacefully surrounded by family on Monday, August 11.
I tell this story of my dad’s illness and my experiences that went along with it because this is medical student blog. And whether I liked it or not, I was a medical student and a patient’s family member at the same time throughout this process. Moreover, I tell this story because so many of the subsequent events that occurred speak such volumes regarding what Loma Linda University is all about and how I can now personally attest to the fact that Loma Linda holds true to its mission “To Make Man Whole” when surveyed from both sides of the curtain.
The Patient Side of the Curtain
There is nothing more meaningful to a patient and family members sitting in a hospital than being treated by a team of people who truly care. Doctors Howard, Moore, and Wei were 3 such physicians who stuck out in my mind as physicians who truly emulate the mission of Loma Linda to treat the whole person. Dr. Howard was my dad’s personal oncologist and he took several evenings of his own time after clinic to come and visit us in the hospital. He spent hours with us discussing our options and ensuring that we knew that we would be taken care of until the very end. Dr. Moore has mastered the art of comforting patients and caring for patients during the end of life as a palliative care specialist. She worked with our family for several days to ensure that we could take our dad home on hospice so that he could be comfortable during his final days. Dr. Wei is a Senior Resident on the internal medicine service who took the time to pray with our family several times during our hospital visit. Perhaps the most touching moment of all for me was when he and his entire team visited our family during the memorial service and expressed his condolences for our loss.
At a certain point in the progression of my dad’s illness, we knew that he would likely succumb to the cumulative toll that his disease had taken on his body. These physicians never lost sight of the fact that there is always something more that a medical team can do to ensure the wholeness of their patients and families. They dedicated their time, prayers, and support until the very end of my dad’s life and then extended their love to us as a family after his passing. I cannot think of three more compassionate, dedicated, and Christ-like physicians and I am so grateful for everything that they did for our family.
The Medical Student Side of the Curtain
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, medical school is hard. Adding on the additional stress of a situation such as this was, at times, unbearable. Prior to this hospitalization I had not shared the reality of my dad’s illness with more than a few of my closest classmates and friends, I didn’t want to burden them with my problems. However, now that I knew so many people in the hospital because of my clinical rotations and because of the severity of my father’s illness, I finally opened up to my classmates and the School of Medicine Dean’s Office about my situation. The response that I received was amazing to say the least.
I have never in my life felt more completely surrounded by support and love. The Dean’s Office ensured me that I could take as much time as I needed away from school to work things out with my family. My classmates sent me Bible verses, encouraging words, and offered prayers for my family seemingly continuously. Several of my classmates provided a moving special music during the memorial service and many classmates and members of the Dean’s Office attended the service in order to support me through this difficult time. My family and I were completely astounded by the tremendous out-pouring of support that we received from the School of Medicine during this time and I can only say that I am so incredibly blessed to be in a place that cares for its students in such a profound way.
My last 2 weeks have been spent on the Internal Medicine team at LLUMC; the same team that took care of my dad during his final hospitalization. I now stand, once again, on the outside of the curtain, knowing numbers, lab values, and diagnoses but only catching small glimpses into the private lives of my patients who anxiously await any news about their health and well-being. During my first week on this service, I was faced once again with the painful realities of some of the experiences that my family went through. I’ve been a part of a team who diagnosed a man with advanced cancer and watched as his world and his family’s world came crashing to a sudden halt as those words escaped our attending physician’s lips. I’ve held back tears watching patients struggle through illness, treatment, and even death. I’ve been shaken to my core by these experiences, been pushed to the limits of my emotional and mental capacity, and have been left wishing that there was something more that I could do to ease my patients suffering and my own.
And yet, as difficult as this all has been, these challenges and raw emotions have been a blessing because they have taught me so much. I have a whole new understanding of what it means to stand on both sides of a hospital curtain. I have had the opportunity to be comforted and be the comforter. I’ve had the chance to be the one who is prayed for and to be the one who is praying. And through it all, I’ve seen the hope, assurance, and peace that only a faith in God can bring during the most difficult moments that we face in this life.
I pray that you’ve never had to experience both sides of a hospital curtain, but the chances are that many of you reading this blog have already been or will be faced with that reality. I hope that from the patient side you will be able to experience the same healing and wholeness that I was able to appreciate from the team that cared for my dad. And I hope that from the physician side you will never forget the power that you have to bring your patients hope and point them toward the greatest physician of all.