Tuesday, March 01, 2005

An Issue of Character

Ted gave me a link to a blog called The Cheerful Oncologist. I was really grateful because I was curious about why anyone would make oncology their specialty and here at least I could read one guy talking about why he did it. He had an entry called Facing Your Own Death in which he talked about a patient with pancreatic cancer who worked until two days before he died. It seemed very admirable, but it has bothered me immensely since I read it. I know that if this were some disease with a more pessismistic prognosis, I wouldn't want to work until two days before I died.

To give some context, Dr. Hildreth isn't talking about the sanctity of the job, but about refusing to concede. From the entry:

St. Francis of Assisi, while hoeing his garden one sunny afternoon, was asked what he would do if he were suddenly to learn that he would die before sunset that very day. He replied, "I would finish hoeing my garden." This too was Mark's answer to the Spectre: "I shall keep living my life on my terms until I feel the grasp of your cold hand." He continued to drive himself to work. After arriving at the office he would rest for several minutes, gathering the strength to get out of his car and walk. Emaciated, with a faltering voice, he carried his load day after day, until he finally collapsed. Mark died two days after his last day at work.

I guess this goes back to the whole issue of being brave, but if I have only so much energy, I'm going to concede that. And I'm not going to waste it sitting in a parking lot. I might waste it on bad television. I might waste it on whining. I'd like to think that I'd clean out the linen closet and get my will in order. But I'm going to pick my battles and try to spend time driving Bob crazy rather than, say, teaching a fiction course at John Carroll University.

I have a different idea of a good death and it involves lots of pain medication and and time spent with friends and family. I know already that I'm not always rising to this occassion with good grace and great fortitude. I would like to, but sometimes I think it's okay if I don't. And it's okay if Bob doesn't, either. Most of the time he is, but the times that he isn't? Well, that just lets me off the hook for not being perfect.


Blogger Herr Doktor said...

Ms. McHugh - I admire your insight into the unappealing hypothetical scenario of considering the end of one's life. My essay was intended to show how this patient refused to sacrifice something he valued immensely (his job) just because he was living with cancer.

I think your choices are equally desirable, and probably more closely reflect what I would do if faced with such a future.

I apologize for intruding into your blog, and wish you a speedy cure!

March 01, 2005 1:26 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I suspect that, faced with a death sentence, I'd be more likely to watch crappy TV, eat too much expensive chocolate, and try to ignore my imminent demise. Probably the only worthy thing I might do is try to make the whole process as minimally horrific as possible for my daughters--and I don't know that I'd be very successful, so maybe I'd blow them off too (no I wouldn't. But I might feel like it.)

However: twenty years ago when I was working at Harvard, the day after I broke up with a long-time boyfriend, I walked to work--despite the fact that the University was technically closed because of a huge snow storm. I could have stayed at home and watched crap TV and eaten chocolate, but decided I'd feel better distracting myself from what I fondly imagined was my pain by getting something done. So maybe I would keep fiddling until the violin dropped from my hand.

It seems to me you are about as centered as a human can be on this topic. May you live a hundred more years in good health, and not have to worry about your insight any time soon.

March 01, 2005 3:56 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Dr. Hildreth! Thanks for coming! (I love your blog, you know.) You have taught me so much and I'm delighted you're here.

I think it's hard to have a cancer diagnosis and not think about dying. What's hard to do is talk about it. I appreciate the way your blog heads directly into big questions. It's a relief to read it, which may sound like a strange word to describe how I feel when I do. You know that sensation where you discover you've been holding your breath? When I read your blog it was like I took a breath.

March 01, 2005 7:36 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

When I was working in cancer epidemiology, twenty years ago when melanoma that had begun to spread would kill quickly, I dealt once with a young man who kept going back to work even though the metastases had spread to his brain, and who would plainly not live much longer. He was dogged about it. I remember filing a copy of a letter from his primary physician to his employer, stating that the patient was "extremely ill" and really should not work.

The young man seemed to me (I did interviews) not terribly bright, and I found myself wondering how well he realized what was happening to him. There was nothing we could do for the poor guy, but everyone felt he should go out and do something fun in the last few weeks of his life, and not keep returning to his machine shop.

Evidently that's what he wanted, and it wasn't for us to gainsay him. He worked until a few days before his death, and all I could do was hope he was content with that.

March 02, 2005 1:30 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

It seems to me that people face death very much in the same way we face life.

Let this be a warning to my nurses when I'm there.


March 02, 2005 7:45 PM  

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