Updated: Apr 5, 2020
This is a letter I wrote to my physician friend Dr. Doreen Rabi. I was to speak at her storytelling event in Calgary on April 3, but of course it has been postponed. I wrote this letter for Dr. Rabi and her medical colleagues to say thank you.
It was shared in Dr. Verna Yiu's daily update to all Alberta Health Services staff and physicians. While I wrote it for doctors, please know that it applies to anybody who works in health care right now.
The writer Anne Lamott says there are only two prayers in the world: Help me, help me, help me, and Thank you, thank you, thank you. Patients come to you with these prayers. I am not a praying person, but I carried these sentiments when I had cancer three years ago. Today, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, these prayers carry meaning more than ever. The whole world is saying or praying ‘Help me, help me, help me’ right now and looking to you. Sometimes we forget to say the ‘Thank you’ part. This essay is my thank you to you. Patients come to you asking for all sorts of help – reassurance, comfort, advice, care and treatment. Being sick or even fearing sickness makes us exceedingly vulnerable and fragile. Often we are literally stripped bare when you see us. Suddenly in 2020, we all now present to you terrified that we are going to die. It is chilling to be face-to-face with your own mortality. I wonder if you have recently felt this fear of mortality too. When I had cancer, I wore the fear of death around me like a dark hooded cloak. It was heavy to carry and it took me months to figure out ways to shake it off, even for a slight reprieve. This wisdom from being a cancer patient was so hard-fought I want to share it with you. I learned how to carve out moments of peace, even when I feared I was going to die. This was beyond bubble baths and the self-care BS of the wellness world. It was finding what calmed me in my heart. For me it included the little things like breathing, staying in the moment, playing music and listening to the birds. I also gobbled up any kindnesses that were gifted to me in health care settings. I hope you can find those small comforts for yourself too. They are a salve for our collective wounds, if only for a moment. Ultimately, what I learned from having cancer was rooted in truly being kind to myself. I had to let go of the idea that I had to be a perfect human being. As physicians, the hero model that is placed on you by the public increases the pressure to be perfect, to never be wrong. But here’s the thing. I don’t want a perfect doctor. I want a doctor who is able to be human. I remember my family physician’s eyes welling up when she told me I had cancer. ‘I hate this part of my job,’ she said to me, as way of a confession. This demonstration of compassion for me was what I needed at that time, not her expert advice. Please never apologize for showing emotion, for that is what allows us to take a little peek into your heart. My best memories of physicians are the human ones. That same family doctor called me up while I was waiting for cancer treatment just to see how I was doing. The surgeon who held my hand in the OR before I was put under. The radiation oncologist who listened calmly to all my frantic questions before slowly answering them one by one. Someone once told me that patient experience was in the realm of nurses not doctors. But I know that’s not true. I remember every pat on the hand, gentle word and warm blanket brought to me as a patient from every health professional, no matter their title. Kindness is in everybody’s lane, especially now. In this time of COVID-19, you are all learners now, even the most seasoned of specialists. This descend into chaos is something nobody is prepared for. And surely, I think, you must be scared for your own family: your aging parents who mourn their independence, your partner who does the grocery shopping, your small children who are confused by all these swirling emotions. I feel for you in this way. This is hard stuff for all of us. I am scared too. The anxiety that gnaws in my stomach when I wake up each morning is panic. And below that lives fear. When people say that we are all in this together, they mean we are all experiencing this fear together. Patients and clinicians all have this in common now. This is not something I would have wished for you. But here we are. I want you to know that I care about you. I am thankful for your competency, your treatment, your compassion and your care. But I’m mostly thankful for you. And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth. -Raymond Carver You are beloved on this earth. Warmly, Sue.