A Doctor’s Realization
A radiologist recounts her journey as a patient undergoing treatment for a brain tumor — and its impact on her work as a physician.
A popular word these days is resilience. For me, it is about finding the good in what you are left with after encountering a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
It was December 2010, and like any other day, I was in the reading room. I reached down from my chair and instantaneously developed a headache. It lasted about 10 seconds. About one week later, I was interviewing a prospective medical student. As soon as I stood up afterwards, I felt a searing headache and could hardly see past the tangle of red, pulsating retinal vessels. I did not want to scare the applicant, so I accompanied her back to the school. I pretended everything was fine, but I was practically hugging the walls during our walk. As soon as I returned to my office, I called the neurology clinic.
Two days later, I went in for an MRI. I knew it was bad when the technologist returned to give me contrast. I knew it was really bad when this same seasoned technologist missed my vein. I realized it was extraordinarily bad when the neurologist personally came to find me immediately afterward. I had a 10-cm tumor in my brainstem with hydrocephalus. I did not know exactly what kind of tumor; in the short-term, it didn’t really matter.
A week later, I had a craniotomy, followed by an ICU stay, inpatient wards, inpatient rehab, outpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and in-home rehab. Not always in that order. When all was said and done, I had been away from work for a year.
A few months after surgery, a colleague brought me into the office. I needed a walker and an emesis basin, and I had lost nearly 50 pounds. I did not actually work that day, but it was so nice to be somewhere where the world made sense. My colleagues, my office, and the sounds of the workplace were familiar. Everything else in my life had drastically changed, and suddenly basic functions were difficult. At home, I felt like a burden. I couldn’t take care of my three children under the age of two the way I wanted to. At work, at least I felt like I had value. I could still read a CT well.
After a year, I returned to work full-time. I was glad to be back, but the biggest mistake I made was trying to act as if nothing happened. I was so focused on picking up where I had left off that I would not acknowledge just how different things really were. And I fell into the trap of comparing myself to my colleagues, their CVs, their manuscript counts, and their speaking invitations. I tried to overcompensate, which only made things worse. And I felt terribly guilty all the time. When I realized that I couldn’t do biopsies anymore, I was hit with soul-crushing guilt over the effort that others had gone through to teach those skills to me when I was in training. And for what? Nothing.
Then I had an epiphany. I realized I could not compare myself to others. It was a mistake to try to live up to my perceptions of others’ expectations. They weren’t real anyway.
It turns out that being a physician is a fundamental part of my identity. I could have abandoned my career and nobody would have blamed me. What started out as a selfish desire to return to normalcy turned into a reminder of why I became a doctor in the first place: to better the lives of my patients. I had been a patient myself, and I was very appreciative of the efforts of those who had made me better.
This ordeal has made me more fully view patients as complete people, not just images on a screen. What we’re looking at are images of someone’s daughter, someone’s grandfather. Maybe they’ve never been sick before and the experience is completely new to them. These are individuals whose entire lives may be turned upside-down by their diagnoses. I know mine was. It still is, at times.
I still have to deal with limitations and constant reminders of how my life is different from before, but this journey has been an awakening. I have come to realize that sometimes what I thought was essential was actually not. I have learned that it’s not the challenge that matters, but how we handle ourselves when things go wrong. People are not defi by the hurdles that they face, but instead by how they respond to those challenges.
By Christine M. Peterson, MD, radiologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine.