Voices: A Letter to my Patients: Promises Part 2

A Letter to My Patients: Promises Part 2 | Erin Stevens, MD

This is Part 2 of an excerpt of a speech I gave at the Stony Brook University Hospital’s Gynecologic Oncology Candlelight Ceremony in September 2012.

I promise to remember who my patients are. My patients are women, just like myself. And women spend most of their lives nurturing those around them, putting others first. This makes cancer a very humbling disease. Being diagnosed with cancer means reaching out to others nurturing while you are putting yourself first. It is a time when you must be at least a little selfish, which is extraordinarily difficult for most women.

I promise to remind you that this is okay, and even necessary. I promise to tell you that you are courageous in your battle. That there are others who have gone through it, and you will get through it as well. And I also promise to remember that while the patient is my main priority, the family and loved ones need support and answers too. It can be just as hard on those sitting at the bedside as it can be on the patient themselves.

Out of obstetrics and gynecology, a field known for delivering babies and bringing life into the world, I promise to remember why I picked this field to specialize in. As a resident, I wasn’t sure why anyone would choose oncology as a career. That was, until I met my very first gynecologic oncology patient. She was, simply put, an amazing woman. I could often be found after my shift had ended just sitting at her bedside talking to her. When she walked out of the hospital on the last day I saw her, you wouldn’t have even guessed she was sick. You wouldn’t know that her hair was actually a wig and under her shirt was a colostomy bag. And you definitely wouldn’t know how much she taught me.

And then there was a second woman just like her, and a then third…and you know what? These amazing women just kept on coming. They all had cancer, but they had this spirit around them. They were fighters. This was their life and they wanted every last second of it. At Downstate, I’m known as the fellow that takes forever on afternoon rounds. It’s because I go and sit with my patients and their families and just talk. And I take the entire team with me. It was these kind of moments at the bedside just talking to the patients that made me want to go into this field, and I promise to remember that.

It was during one of these bedside conversations during my first year of fellowship that I asked one of my current patients what she’d want to hear from her doctor in a speech like this one. She said she’d want me to talk about hope. She didn’t expand on that or on what it meant to her. She just told me to talk about hope.

I am a firm believer in hope. As a physician, I know that I have limits. All too often in the field of oncology as it is today, we reach those limits. It is my hope that we will one day be able to exceed them. I tell every person I enroll in a clinical trial that it is my hope that 20 years from now I will be able to sit with a patient who has the same disease as them and tell them that I know exactly what the best treatment is for their disease. I’ve learned the history of the treatments we give now and see how far we’ve come. I already know how far we have to go.

There aren’t many careers like oncology where you hope to one day not have a job any longer. Not having a job means that someone has found a cure. I can only hope to see a glimpse of that in my lifetime.