Random Acts of Kindness Have the Power to Change Lives
This blog is a continuation of Nikhil's story from "For Cancer Patients, 'Little Requests' Can Mean Everything."
I’ve dished out a lot of dirt now… and this is just annoying Doctor #1. I could go into Doctor Annoying Number 2 in extravagant detail; and some of the words, some of the things I’ve faced from doctors in the past, I could go on for pages about; but I feel I’ve done enough of that for now.
Though I’ve had many bad experiences with doctors at various stages, in various circumstances, in the past, I’ve been blessed to have most of my experiences with doctors be positive, even life-changing in nature.
The words that changed my life were uttered from my first hematology doctor’s mouth, the conversations we’ve had over things ranging from life-and-death decisions, the future of medicine and treatments, to exchanges of fishing tales and adventures tantalizingly human in nature. The confidence my transplant specialist had in me to choose the medication that’s kept me alive today and then fight for my right to get it completely subsidized came down to an email exchange between him and me that he was happy to facilitate in his own time.
I’ve been blessed with not only the best parents, siblings, nurses, staff, and friends in the word, but also some of the best doctors too.
But by far the most human of these has been my ophthalmologist; my eye doctor, and my first doctor, who’ll always have a special place in my heart.
That ophthalmologist showed just how amazing she was in this last tumultuous week too.
My eyes have gone through a lot in the last half-year or so. I’ve lost almost all my vision in my left eye permanently to a “central retinal venous occlusion“, whose cause we still don’t know and then, just over 3 months after that, almost lost my right eye as well to the same reason.
My reflections… my feelings as I went through what I felt may well have been the last time I saw anything.
During this second time in particular, as I was rushed to the hospital, experiencing the same things as I did the first time, seeing the same results from the same tests coming back, I was in one of the most sullen moods of my life. I knew what was coming. And I knew that there wasn’t much we could do to change the results of it. All I could do was sit there and wait for what could have been the last flashes of lights I’d ever see go by in this alien, dreary waiting room.
Yet when I called Claire during that time… she showed nothing but concern and care for my welfare. Me. Just one of who knows how many patients she had; she showed love and concern for where she had every right to be peeved, pissed off, and even violated for being called up at 5 am with information of this going on.
During that crisis itself, and in the weeks following up, she was her usual amazing self. Luckily, the vein blockage that caused my left eye to go blind had cleared for some unknown reason and I hadn’t lost both my eyes. And in the weeks following, she was happy to see me every week during this time, and even offered and decided to see me for free in this period.
Every appointment, as usual, we’d discuss the findings as she saw them, and she did more than explain the goings-on of my eye to me. As the details emerged on the screen, she made sure mum and I both could see the differences; the changes in the scans, actively involving us in the process and making us feel like we had control of the situation. Something many, if not most patients, wish they had in their interactions with doctors. Something that’s indeed been linked with better outcomes and survival times in diseases ranging from colds to kidney failure to advanced cancers.
We couldn’t thank her enough for what she’d done for us in those last few weeks/months. She’d transformed this tragedy that would have stayed with me forever into one of the most inspirational experiences of my life. And we thanked her in kind by giving her a pair of gold bauble-style earrings; a wedding present to her because she’d recently been engaged. During her eye examinations, she always had me look at her earrings, she always picked quirky and extravagant ones to “give her patients something to look at.”
But somehow, during the crisis that was last week, she got wind that I had yet another cancer. And when I saw her face in my window the day I’d gotten my bone scans (indeed, she was the one who deciphered them for me and let me know that they confirmed it was another cancer I had), I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it at first. But there she was, the earrings we’d gotten her glimmering in the light, smile bright as ever, beaming at me, with flowers in hand.
“How come you’re here? How did you know what was up?”
“I’d heard about this happen, and I wasn’t far away. I live right in the middle of Sydney, really, so it wasn’t that hard to pop in,” she exclaimed cheerily. She handed me a set of fake flowers and then took them from my hands, still limp from disbelief, and organized the flowers on my noticeboard of cards and encouragement with my similarly awed mother.
I was astounded. I know personally, the amount my doctors, my two hematologists leading my treatment, cared for me, as they cared for any of their patients from deep conversations with them about treatment and just life. But even THEY hadn’t gone this far to show their concern. Now that I think of it though… I do remember my first doctor, the one who’d told me those words, “The Good news is you’re 17 and you have leukemia, but the bad news is… you’re 17… and you have leukemia,” walking in shyly to see me and wish me well before one of my procedures at a completely different hospital, on his day off, one day. He played it off cool… but he was there to specifically see and talk to me…
The generosity of these souls… their sheer care for the people who’d been thrust into their hands damaged and sick and their nurturing humanity to bring us back to health… was just staggering.
That sort of care these 2 amazing souls had didn’t just extend to me though. My first Haematologist told me his code one day in a candid moment. He treats “Every single person as if they’re his father, brother, son, or uncle”. And the way he treats them backs this up. He goes to every extent, doesn’t care if he steps on toes or upsets people; he’s renowned for giving tongue-lashings to clerical staff who wouldn’t budge on red tape, and every time you’re in serious trouble, you’re glad to have him there because, if you needed it most, he’d ensure you got that CT scan, MRI or procedure done, no matter what others would say.
People call him eccentric, difficult to work with, rude even. But my Dad saw him immediately for what he really is. “The other day, before your first chemo, I came across him in the hallway and asked ‘Doing anything this weekend, doctor?’ attempting to make small talk. He just stared off into the distance and walked off the other way. And I wasn’t offended at all.”
“Why,” I asked. I’d only just met him for the first time the other week. To me, in the days after being told the bad news so ‘brashly,’ he was an eccentric, off-putting doctor who had, in my own words, “No people skills.”
“Because I know that the reason he did that was because he was busy thinking about a problem he had with another patient. And that patient in his mind may have well been you. With that in mind… Who do you want treating you?”
Claire, my ophthalmologist, displays the same level of compassion and care for ALL of her patients too, I know, through this enlightening chat we had with another of her patients during my last visit. She was carrying a bunch of flowers, the same variety, I’m realizing now, as the one’s hanging on my noticeboard in this room, and my father made a remark on the arrangement.
“Yes, they are pretty aren’t they?” the old lady smiled. “Claire got them for me, bless her. My son had died this month 20 years ago, and I mentioned that I was planning on visiting his grave during my check-up last year. The dear soul remembered… Bless her.” she sighed, wiping off a tear…
It’s no wonder she always talks about being blessed and having the most adorable patients ever, “a veritable gang of second grandmas” as she puts it…
The humanity of that action… the sheer compassion and thought it showed… goddamnit…
THAT’S the kind of doctor I wanna be.
Hell… that’s the kind of PERSON I want to be!
Random acts of kindness have the power to change lives. I’ve said it many times before… but these guys transcend that and make every action as good as possible. It’s bloody amazing, and I’m honored to be affiliated with souls like this, and one day, aspire to be someone just like this.
I know it’s hard to display this level of care and compassion every day, for everyone during every circumstance too. But I know one thing as well… it’s bloody worth it. And I’ll definitely try to be as good a person, as well as a doctor, as I can be for everyone… forever.
But for you doctors, medical professionals; just ANYONE reading this, you don’t have to feel the pain or the worry of getting cancer to understand this. You don’t have to experience it first hand, as many doctors, such as these end up doing before they themselves decide to write an inspiring article and change the way they practice. Hopefully reading this will make sure you try and do these little gestures of kindness without having to go through something yourself to get there. You don’t have to examine or read through textbooks and journal articles to find out how you should deal with your patients. All you’ve gotta do is Just Be Human.
Just be nice… wherever you can.
This profession can be tough. It can drain you. Make you feel like you’re not making a difference after years of seeing the same patients with these same issues come to you over and over again. But take it from someone who knows, from someone who’s been there. You will ALWAYS be able to make a difference in others’ lives. No matter what the circumstances.
It wasn’t the medical decisions that made my doctors special… no, what made my doctors special to me – were those tiny little things they did, which combined have changed… even saved my life.
At one point, at my lowest, it was knowing that there was a doctor out there who cared for me that stopped me from doing something I couldn’t take back.
You could know everything there is to know about medicine and biology. You could be the GOD of medicine, but you still wouldn’t have been able to save me that day. Only that man could. And I think this goes to show that making someone feel cared for is the most powerful weapon you have on your side.
And if you can spread that humanity in a place, at a time in someone’s life where there doesn’t seem to be much going around – you WILL Change Lives. You WILL make a difference. And if you’re ever struggling to find meaning in your life – be you a doctor or not – these acts will change YOUR life too.
I hope this helps you see that.
Photo courtesy of author.
Nikhil is an AML survivor, 2 time bone marrow transplant recipient, medical student, founder of a social enterprise and author of his blog, Musings of a Med Student Patient.