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
Thats 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 cant 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 worlds
foremost medical research and treatment institution with affiliations
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 hes not going to be put on the
drug. The study came with health criteria that werent
met by this patient. It wasnt said, but it felt like
a death sentence.
They couldnt do anything more for him.
Seven medical practitioners walk in a group into the patients
roominterns, juniors, seniors, nurses. They all have
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?
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 Americas 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
Next week: Dr Hesdorffer