Saturday, September 27, 2014

caught between the scylla and charibdyes

A patient of mine- and now I really know what it means, for a patient to be mine, because he is mine, my responsibility more than anyone else's- came to my clinic yesterday, huddled in blankets and pale and miserable. He had been discharged from the hospital less than a week prior, and had a terrible hospital stay. He has a fairly rare tumor, and he was admitted to the hospital to undergo a cycle of chemotherapy, but ended up staying in the hospital for nearly a month because of a number of complications.

I was supposed to see him to assess whether he was ready to be admitted for another cycle of chemotherapy. I had seen him two weeks before, and he was not crazy about being stuck in the hospital, but he was smiling and joking around and frequently holding my hand. Yesterday he was irritable and weak and growling about not wanting to go back to the hospital.

In clinic, you're always on a schedule. There are always patients waiting to be seen. There is always a tightrope of trying to be present, mindful in the moment of seeing a patient, give them your undivided attention, but keep them focused enough to not fall far behind schedule. Then a patient sits in your office looking miserable, with low blood pressure, a fast heart rate, and you know that your afternoon is about to be derailed.

But that would be fine. With the help of one of the nurses, we cajoled the infusion center into giving this patient IV fluids, an attempt to stabilize him so that he could avoid being hospitalized for the day at least. An hour later, I checked on him between patients and he was feeling a little better. And then we had what I can only characterize as a futile conversation.

He was looking at me like I was plum crazy when I broached the topic, and I didn't really blame him. But his situation is so complicated that we are stuck trying to make impossible decisions- subject him to the brutal chemotherapy regimen that clearly causes him problems, or let a very aggressive tumor continue to impinge on some rather vital organs. This is the conversation we have with cancer patients all the time- it's the 'how do you want to die' conversation and it's the hardest of conversations, especially when you're in your first year of fellowship. It's a difficult conversation to have when someone is feeling well. When they're feeling this poorly, it's very nearly worthless.

A lot of people view medical oncologists as chemo-pushers, as physicians who will administer toxic medicines to their patients even if they look and feel terrible. I don't view myself that way. I have no aspirations to become that sort of physician. I don't believe in treating patients with medicine just so that you feel you are doing something. There's a saying one of my former attendings used to quote- when in doubt, do nothing. And I stand by that, usually.

But here in the grey zone, in the alleged cutting edge, it's not so much doubt as uncertainty. We're supposed to weigh the risks versus the benefits of providing a therapy. Many times, that is an easy decision to be made, or an easy choice to outline for a patient to make. But we sat there, my patient and I, and neither of us knew what to do. Neither of us could make a decision. He was looking for promises that I couldn't provide him. He was looking for me to push him in one direction or the other, but there is no good direction for him. I had told him from the beginning that any treatment we gave him would be to try to let him live longer, more comfortably, but it wouldn't be a cure, it wouldn't drive the cancer away altogether. But it wasn't hard to tell that he was struggling with his own uncertainty. He wasn't ready to die, he wasn't ready to consider the idea that he was already in the process of dying, so he focused on feeling miserable in the moment, in fixing that, and the matter of dying from cancer was just going to have to wait until next week. He won't be feeling much better next week, of that I'm sure. But maybe one of us will have more of an idea of what to do. That is my almost absurdly unrealistic hope. Maybe next week, I'll be a better oncologist.

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