“I don’t want to say goodbye to patients,” Uzma told me one day in late March 2016. “But I feel as if I don’t have a choice,” she added.
She wasn’t thinking of retiring from medicine. It was to be more of an extended self-care break. “I will take six-to-months off. Then I will return to work.”
February had brought the terrible news that Uzma’s cancer had returned. It was now in the liver, which is never a good sign. Only half of the patients whose breast cancer spreads to the liver survive for more than three years. We both knew this. This knowledge unleashed a flood of feelings that got in the way of being the kind of psychiatrist, the kind of physician that Uzma was used to being — emotionally fully available to her patients when she was at work.
A diagnosis of cancer brings unwanted ownership of a metaphorical box or jar in one’s mind. This box is the opposite of what the mythical Greek woman Pandora unwittingly opened. Hope is outside the box. There it allows the person with cancer to willingly and smilingly take that harsh drugs that aim to kill rogue cells. The dread of cancer’s return and all the feelings linked to that dread live inside the box.
Anxiety, terror, and helplessness live inside that box. And so does the guilt of being the person who brought cancer’s burdens into the lives of loved ones. Sadness stemming from lost personal and professional dreams survives in there. When cancer is in remission, this mental box seems to get lighter and smaller. Sometimes it may be forgotten for weeks or months on end. But it stays there. The ownership of this box is not just unwanted — it is permanent.
Recurrence and the spread of cancer opened wide Uzma’s cancer-feelings box. From that day on, she felt its weight every single moment that she was awake. The now unrestrained emotions even intruded upon her sleep. Sometimes, they kept her from falling asleep. On other occasions, they injected nightmares into her mind when it was supposed to rest.
She realized that her feelings so overwhelmed her that she couldn’t give any of herself to her patients. That’s what drove her decision to take a break. She said, “If the treatment seems to work, I will return to practice in the fall. Or maybe, next year.”
Becoming a doctor takes a long time. It requires an all-consuming commitment to absorbing a considerable body of knowledge. An apprenticeship called residency follows. Depending on the specialty, the residency lasts three to more than seven years. Most doctors sacrifice the first decade of their adulthood, the prime of their youth, to the altar of medicine. During that time, they breathe, eat, drink, and live medicine or the pursuit of medicine. Most can’t find time for anything else. In the end, medicine so shapes the foundation of their adulthood that it becomes an integral part of their identity. Once a doctor, always a doctor.
Taking a break for treating patients felt like an emotional amputation to Uzma. I believe that though she did not allow herself to say it aloud then, she already knew that this was it — that this moment was to be her retirement from medicine. The cancer-feelings box was now enormous, heavy, and yawning wide. It was impossible to force it closed for long enough to relax and focus on helping patients.
Uzma began spending more time with our kids. She took writing classes and art classes. She honed her creativity in a way that linked many hearts to hers. Some of those hearts belonged in a Facebook group of physician moms that she had joined in 2014. Many belonged outside that. She practiced distancing herself from toxic people. All of this helped her cope with her heavy and open cancer-feelings box.
When the fall of 2016 came around, Uzma contemplated returning to work. But she was in two minds about it. On the one hand, she realized the work it took to manage her fears and anxieties around cancer. She didn’t think she could keep up with that work while also returning to practice. On the other hand, not returning meant giving up all hope of the amputated physician identity becoming whole again.
But she knew she could no longer give her all to patients when she was with them. She knew she would be almost continuously distracted by her own emotions when treating them. She knew they deserved better. So she sacrificed part of herself for the sake of the obligation she felt to her patients.
This month, it has been four years since Uzma quit the practice of medicine. It would take her another year and the spread of cancer to her skull before she would finally say aloud that she was retired. But four years ago, as she struggled with leaving medicine, this is what she wrote on her Facebook timeline on April 16, 2016:
Thinking about the relationship we doctors have with our patients.
They trust us, open their hearts to us, and let us into their lives. We can ask them anything and they are expected to answer. We become so important to them. They rely on us and depend on our recommendations and advice.
But then, unlike regular relationships, this intense relationship can end abruptly. There may or may not be a closure, some exchange of niceties, and perhaps a hug. And then it is over.
I have said bye to many patients over the course of my career. Each time it’s equally painful. But each one of them had left me with an insight, a lesson, a message that I keep close to my heart.
I always say, its a privilege that someone let me be a part of their pain and suffering, that they shared a slice of their heart with me and show me, what life truly is.
I would do it over and over again. Being a physician is such an honor.
Today I grieve saying bye to some of my patients, today I look forward to new beginnings.