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The Healing Touch

“Do you feel you have enough social support? Do you have people you can talk to about what you’re going through?”

“Oh, yes, my priest comes everyday. My family comes everyday, but I try not to worry them too much. My daughter is pregnant with her first child–my first grandchild–and I want her to take care of herself.”

Attempting to change the conversation to a happier subject, I said, “When is the baby due?”

“Six months from now. Do you think…do you think I’ll be able to see the birth of my grandson?” He leaned forward, anxious to hear my response.

How could I answer? To be completely honest, I would have told him, “No.” Yet he had faith that with aggressive multi-drug combination chemotherapy and radiation, he would survive in time for his grandson’s birth. Not wanting to tear that hope away from him, I responded, “Well, I’m not the expert. I think your oncologist could give you a better answer. But I do know that these things are hard to predict.”

Composed, I walked out of the hospital room. I believed that physicians should not cry in front of their patients. It was only when I locked myself in the bathroom that I began to sob, feeling powerless to help Mr. C in any way.

Every afternoon, I met with his wife and daughter. They continued to call me “doctor” even though I explained I was just a medical student. In private, they confided that their husband and father rarely complained, that it was likely he was in more pain than he showed. I would explain what pain medications we were giving him, and that we would increase the dose to manage his pain as necessary. I would explain how the steroids helped to improve his appetite and energy. I would explain how the radiation would hopefully kill the tumor cells, and help to shrink it. I would explain how the oncologist was planning to use different chemotherapy drugs to kill the metastasized. They clung to my words, as if words had healing power.

Weeks later, on my last day on the service, Mr. C was still in the hospital, waiting for a port placement for chemotherapy. At the end of my morning physical examination, I told him, “Today is my last day. I wanted to say goodbye and wish you the best.”

He replied, “Thank you so much for all your help. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see you again. I wanted to let you know that your kindness meant a lot.” A single tear flowed down his cheek. I could not hold my tears back. He reached for my hand, pressing it firmly.

Janet Shu is a second year medical resident at the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Training Program. She graduated with honors from Brown University, where she did a Senior Capstone Project in Creative Writing with C. D. Wright. Other honors include winning 2nd place in the national DeBakey poetry contest, membership in the Boston Poetry Union, and acceptance in various publications. She is interested in all forms of writing including narrative medicine, but poetry is her first love. To order a chapbook of her poetry, please email Janet at

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Updated Monday, December 22nd, 2008

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