So, What Do You Do?

April 19, 2011


Papier-Mâché Heart From My First Patient

Whether it be at a dinner party, on an airplane, or at one of my daughters' interminable swim meets, most conversations with new acquaintances eventually hit upon one question: "So, what do you do?" Unless it is clear that my companion is truly interested (and not just making polite conversation), I generally start with something vague but accurate such as "I'm a pediatrician" or "I work at Texas Children's Cancer Center."

About half the time, there is a follow-up question: "What kind of patients do you see?"

"Children with brain tumors, mostly, but also kids with other types of cancer."

Long pause...

"That must be horrible — I mean, taking care of sick kids like that. I don't know how you do it."

My stock answer: "The kids are great, but the parents can sometimes

be a bit difficult" (as a father of 3 girls, I feel that I have some license to slander my fellow parents).

The truth is, some days can be horrible. For example, phoning the parents of one of your long-time patients to them that their child's brain tumor has come back (and is in this case incurable) is truly a heartbreaking task. Each one of those conversations is locked away in my mind (and heart) forever.

Fortunately, not all days are like that. Many pediatric cancer doctors spend a significant part of their time in cancer research (as do I), working to find better ways to treat our patients. This not only offers a respite from the day-to-day stresses of patient care, but also helps to provide a sense of purpose and progress as we work towards finding a cure.

In addition, I have many experiences like these:

  1. Receiving a gift of a homemade papier-mâché heart (pictured above) from my first patient (a healthy and precocious girl who is now cured of her leukemia), which I keep prominently posted in my office to this day.
  2. Getting an email update from the mother of a patient who was cured of a metastic brain tumor — he is now back to playing his guitar and enjoying college life (hopefully not too much).
  3. Spending 45 minutes of a scheduled 15-minute clinic appointment drawing and re-drawing the human GI tract on the examination table paper scroll, trying to make it sufficiently "real" to satisfy the extremely critical eye of a 6-year-old patient (a future doctor-in-training).
  4. Being called on my cell phone by one of my former (now young adult) bone cancer patients: "Nurse X in clinic told me that I should cut back on the chewing tobacco and whiskey on my hunting trips — what do you think?" (obviously a rhetorical question).

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