Before my older daughter was born eight years ago, I suffered three miscarriages. It was after the third one that my doctor did some infertility testing, which is how we learned I have a clotting disorder. My doctor was phenomenal: She was appropriately sympathetic but, even better, she got down to the business of figuring out exactly what needed to be done to allow my body to carry a fetus to term.
However, it was the office's nurse practitioner, Beth, whom I will forever consider the reason my daughters are here now. She held me tight and listened attentively while I wept. She texted to check in on me and answered my calls at night when I worried I'd pressed my swollen belly too hard against a stuck car door. She let me squeeze her hand as hard as I could to release some anxiety while holding my breath every single time she gooped up my belly for an ultrasound. She made sure she saw me at each of my weekly visits so I wouldn't have to explain one more time to one more person why my medical chart was as dense as a pile of bricks. When I finally gave birth to a healthy baby, she came to see me in the hospital even though it was on a Saturday and she wasn't working. While it took a village to get me to be a mom, she was my mayor, moon and stars.
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The experience taught me that I want my doctors to get down to the business of my body, while I appreciate when others in their office can care for my soul. Between the miscarriages and a bout with breast cancer, it's been my experience that doctors mostly see people as patients, while nurses and physicians' assistants are often the ones who see patients as people.
I didn’t get how much you worried about your kids. For this, I’m the most regretful.
Lindsay Norris, 33, is a Kansas-based oncology nurse who recently got a cancer diagnosis of her own. While a cancer diagnosis changes pretty much everyone on the receiving end, for Norris, a mom to a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old, it felt even more profound.
“Dear every cancer patient I ever took care of," Norris wrote on her blog in November, "I’m sorry. I didn’t get it.”
She wrote the letter two months after being diagnosed with stage III colorectal adenocarcinoma, for which she's now receiving radiation and (oral) chemotherapy. While there's no reason to think she lacked empathy before, she realizes what she couldn't have known or didn't try hard enough to understand before.
“I didn’t get what it felt like to actually hear the words ... You were trying to listen to the details and pay attention, but really you just wanted to keep a straight face for as long as it took to maybe ask one appropriate question and get the heck out of there fast. ... You probably didn’t even know where to start and your mind went straight to very dark places. That day was the worst. I’m sorry. I didn’t get it."
When you're suffering from anything—cancer, infertility, even a broken bone—what's happening to you becomes the center of everything. But when you're suffering and you have children who are the center of your everything, it can be exponentially more difficult physically and emotionally.
"I didn’t get how much you worried about your kids," Norris wrote. "For this, I’m the most regretful. I should’ve talked to you more about them—and not just in terms of lifting restrictions or germs. You worried about how this was going to affect them. You worried about not being able to keep up with them or care for them properly on your bad days. You worried they’d be scarred and confused. You worried about leaving them. I’m sorry. I didn’t get it."
Norris recently told Us Weekly she was able to enjoy Thanksgiving. "Staying home with my little family with no plans felt amazing ... The future may not be promised, but when I look around, the view is beautiful.”
Norris' letter should be required reading for all healthcare providers. It's hard to know what you don't know until you have a reason to know it. Although in the case of those caring for others, a case should be made for doing your damnedest to figure it out as best as you can. There are few happy days for people suffering from cancer, although if they can be made even just a little happier because their caretakers took the time to gain more insight into what ails them that won't show up in a blood test or scan, it'll have been worth it.
Photograph by: Lindsay Norris