one should be dying at Christmas. Not of cancer; yet it happens. I have
seen men with IVs lying in run-down rooms in Trinidad, stoically taking
chemotherapy, knowing that they were running backwards on a fast
treadmill, knowing they will fall fatally.
what I expected of cancer.
here in Baltimore, where I am trying to make sense of the reality of a
city where even the renovation of its now plush upscale harbour can’t
disguise the reality of many African American inhabitants living in
poverty, a legacy of slavery and segregation.
there is the Johns Hopkins Hospital, spanning blocks, its solid dark brick
buildings representing the world’s foremost medical research and
treatment institution with affiliations worldwide.
may be engaged in senseless wars, but continues to spend a whopping 12 per
cent of its GDP on healthcare and gives Johns Hopkins US$700 million
here we are, days before Christmas, in a room with a loved one. He came to
this institution because he was told he could get onto an experimental
drug that could save him.
nurses are wonderful. They apologise every time they shift a patient or
stick in a needle. We leap with hope.
we are told that he’s not going to be put on the drug. The study came
with health criteria that weren’t met by this patient. It wasn’t said,
but it felt like a death sentence.
couldn’t do anything more for him.
medical practitioners walk in a group into the patient’s room—interns,
juniors, seniors, nurses. They all have on masks.
from the grave
jauntily says they would liaise with our “team” of doctors at home.
think of the people lining up in St James, at the cancer support society
that offers no support, at the peeling walls where people get chemo.
say there is no “team” at home.
we are leaving, an oncologist walks in. He is Dr Charles Hesdorffer, chief
of the Haematology Department here. He is not our “primary” doctor,
here but has treated the patient for the past six years.
is another drug,” he says, writing the prescription.
of a coffin, the cancer patient sees a life ahead of steaming coffee cups
and laughter, vexation and love and confusion and living.
home, the “patient” is jaunty, walks to the book store, shoves books
in his wheelchair and wheels it himself.
night, as I try to fall asleep, with the accumulated debris of the years
of living in a family affected by cancer, I wonder, what is it, what
training, what background, what inner life allows a doctor to give
thousands of people, and their families hope.
people back from the graveyard into a warm living place? What?
read up on Dr Charles Hesdorffer. He graduated from University of the
Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, as Master of Medicine, attended the Columbia
University College of Physicians & Surgeons, New York.
belongs to numerous cancer research societies worldwide. He has
consistently been named among America’s best doctors.
he told me none of this in our two-hour interview. Instead he told me how
increasingly cancer has become a chronic and treatable, rather than fatal,
illness; that more people survive it than die from it; and that “life is
beautiful.” That a great doctor is not bright, pays attention to detail,
thinks out of the box, treats people and not diseases. He used the word
compassion 20 times. That sounds like Christmas to me.
week: Dr Hesdorffer