Sunday 24th December, 2006

Ira Mathur
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Christmas compassion

No one should be dying at Christmas. Not of cancer; yet it happens. I have seen men with IVs lying in run-down rooms in Trinidad, stoically taking chemotherapy, knowing that they were running backwards on a fast treadmill, knowing they will fall fatally.

That’s what I expected of cancer.

Chilly here in Baltimore, where I am trying to make sense of the reality of a city where even the renovation of its now plush upscale harbour can’t disguise the reality of many African American inhabitants living in poverty, a legacy of slavery and segregation.

Then there is the Johns Hopkins Hospital, spanning blocks, its solid dark brick buildings representing the world’s foremost medical research and treatment institution with affiliations worldwide.

America may be engaged in senseless wars, but continues to spend a whopping 12 per cent of its GDP on healthcare and gives Johns Hopkins US$700 million annually.

So here we are, days before Christmas, in a room with a loved one. He came to this institution because he was told he could get onto an experimental drug that could save him.

The nurses are wonderful. They apologise every time they shift a patient or stick in a needle. We leap with hope.

Then we are told that he’s not going to be put on the drug. The study came with health criteria that weren’t met by this patient. It wasn’t said, but it felt like a death sentence.

They couldn’t do anything more for him.

Seven medical practitioners walk in a group into the patient’s room—interns, juniors, seniors, nurses. They all have on masks.

Back from the grave

One jauntily says they would liaise with our “team” of doctors at home.

I think of the people lining up in St James, at the cancer support society that offers no support, at the peeling walls where people get chemo.

I say there is no “team” at home.

As we are leaving, an oncologist walks in. He is Dr Charles Hesdorffer, chief of the Haematology Department here. He is not our “primary” doctor, here but has treated the patient for the past six years.

“There is another drug,” he says, writing the prescription.

Instead of a coffin, the cancer patient sees a life ahead of steaming coffee cups and laughter, vexation and love and confusion and living.

At home, the “patient” is jaunty, walks to the book store, shoves books in his wheelchair and wheels it himself.

That night, as I try to fall asleep, with the accumulated debris of the years of living in a family affected by cancer, I wonder, what is it, what training, what background, what inner life allows a doctor to give thousand of people, and their families hope.

Drag people back from the graveyard into a warm living place? What?

I read up on Dr Charles Hesdorffer. He graduated from University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, as Master of Medicine, attended the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, New York.

He belongs to numerous cancer research societies worldwide. He has consistently been named among America’s best doctors.

Yet he told me none of this in our two-hour interview. Instead he told me how increasingly cancer has become a chronic and treatable, rather than fatal, illness; that more people survive it than die from it; and that “life is beautiful.” That a great doctor is not bright, pays attention to detail, thinks out of the box, treats people and not diseases. He used the word compassion 20 times. That sounds like Christmas to me.

Next week: Dr Hesdorffer

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