Today’s post is from an up-and-coming writer in the medical field. She happens to be my sister, so you know she’s a good egg. (I’ve always wanted to call her an egg.) She shares about the most difficult season our family has gone through (and is still going through…very…very…slowly…) and writes about it from her medical perspective. I know you’ll find it interesting. Show her some comment-love today, will you?
Going to PA school is a full-time job. There are hours and hours of lectures that cover every body system and every possible thing that could go wrong. At times you start to believe that you have that rare genetic disorder that consists of frequent leg twitching and abnormal knuckle hair. Or maybe the lecturer covered abnormal moles and suddenly all of your “beauty marks” look like melanoma. At some point during the didactic year, you have to just ignore all the bad things that you might develop in your life or else you might become paralyzed. Just continue to drink from the fire hose and make it out alive to start practicing medicine. One thing that PA school did not prepare me for was family illness. There was not a single lecture entitled “How to Stand By a Loved One Who Gets Sick”, or “How to Walk Gracefully Along Side a Parent Who is Diagnosed With Cancer”.
My sister called me one evening last September and asked me to go look at my Dad’s leg. I made the short drive and noted that his right leg was twice the size of his left.
“How long has it been like that, Dad?”
“Just three days.”
“Who told you to wait three days?”
My Dad was not, in fact, a medical doctor. Among other degrees, he got a PhD in Theology and was a pastor of a church before retiring a few years ago. I directed my Dad to go immediately to the ER because I was worried he had a DVT, or blood clot, in his leg. A DVT was diagnosed and he actually had a large clot that extended from his ankle to his thigh. I wanted to be wrong.
A couple months later he was visiting a freshly hatched grandchild and became short of breath. My parents drove to the hospital and the doctors there found a showering of emboli or blood clots in the lungs. They also found a mass.
“We’re not sure what it is yet. I think I just swallowed a ping-pong ball!”
“Dad, this doesn’t sound good.”
“We are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.”
I tried to do just that. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. But in my mind I just kept thinking about stages. Cancer stages.
My dad was quickly diagnosed with lung cancer. I wanted to be wrong. They saw a “hot spot” when they did the initial scans and wanted to do a bone biopsy. On the way down to get the biopsy my dad started have trouble finding words. My mom made a detour and took dad to the ER and they diagnosed him with a stroke. Because they made it to the ER quickly, they were able to receive TPA, also known as clot-busting medication. He was admitted to the hospital and my brothers, sister, and I drove to see him. My dad continued to be in good spirits, and felt lucky that they had made it in time to get TPA.
“I had meat soap, meat soap….Kath, what did I have for dinner?”
“Meat Loaf, Gary!” my mom said.
We all circled my dad, laid across his chest, and prayed. Please, God, make this go away.
A couple of days later I received a call that Dad was doing worse. I immediately thought that the stroke converted to a hemorrhagic, or bleeding, type of stroke. I wanted to be wrong. I walked into the hospital room and my mom gripped my neck. My dad had a hard time speaking, and he couldn’t open his eyes because the hemorrhagic stroke affected his equilibrium. I slept over that night next to him and I heard him whispering the names of his grandchildren. I knew that this scenario was not good.
My dad was fighting stage 4 lung cancer, and the stroke had weakened him significantly. The great 6′ 2″ giant, was a little hunched and his long gait was reduced to shuffling. But he and my mom still managed to travel to Costa Rica that winter. My dad would get his chemo, wait a day, fly down to Costa Rica for 3 weeks, and return in time for another run. He regained his strength and he boasted that he was able to do his daily walk and push ups. He told me that when he was in the hospital after the stroke he felt helpless, but never hopeless. He continued to fight the cancer with chemo, sunshine, changed his diet and began eating as a vegetarian.
My dad fooled us all. He convinced us that he was feeling really well. So well, that he wanted to go to Costa Rica alone, without my mom. But we found out that the chemo wasn’t touching the cancer and that they would see if he would be a candidate for a clinical trial. I wasn’t comforted by the news. On the way home from Costa Rica, my dad got really, really sick. He fell down the escalator in the airport. He was confused and lost his passport. How he got home, we will never know. God didn’t take away his cancer, but one of his angels brought my dad home safely. Even in his confusion, he was thoughtful enough to buy one of his grandkids a breakfast sandwich. He had it in his pocket for two days.
When we heard of these events, I already knew the cancer had taken his brain. I tried to hope for the best, I did. But my training wouldn’t allow me to ignore the facts. They found mets to the brain and he was no longer eligible for the clinical trial. They would start radiation, and this was only to help with symptoms. This was not a cure.
How do you stand by a loved one when they are sick? You go with them to doctors appointments. I went with my parents to chemo and radiation appointments. I argued with the doctors. I brought with me articles about possible alternative treatments for my dad’s cancer.
Sometimes the only way we feel like we have some sort of control over the situation is to study it. I spent down time at work looking up articles about lung cancer treatments and ways to combat side effects of chemo. And when you finally realize that knowledge is not going to save your dad, you cry with him. And when your mother no longer can handle injecting him with blood thinners, you go there every night and do it for her. And when he is ready to let go, you be there to hold his hand.
How do you walk gracefully alongside your parent who is diagnosed with cancer? You do exactly as my dad said. You hope for the best, prepare for the worst. The graceful part is tricky. No one does it perfectly. Just hold each other up and do cancer together. It’s the only way to survive the diagnosis. This is something school just can’t teach you, and there is no way to prepare for tragedy. And sometimes no matter how much you know, it won’t change the outcome. Sometimes its better to be a friend, a partner, a daughter than it is to be a PA.
I am a PA with a family. Currently, I work in a busy ER and juggle my career, my husband, and my three children. My blog is to help prepare students, discuss medical topics and the PA profession as a whole. I write a column for PAs Connect entitled The PA Mama . I coach pre-PAs and help them get into school. You can find me on Facebook at PA Trek. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Follow me on Twitter.