A Disease of One’s Own

I’m a clinic nurse, and although there are low-points during my day when I feel like a glorified secretary with the power to take telephone orders, for the most part my job revolves around patients and the coordination of their needs. I speak to them on phone, I speak to other nurses and doctors about them, I read their clinical notes, I review their labs and test results, I take orders, fill prescriptions, and fill out forms ad finitum about them. My days are pretty busy and I’m usually doing several things at once, juggling several issues, remembering several details about patients or their problems at once. I’m frequently checking voicemail while I’m looking up a lab values in a patient chart on the computer while I’m shuffling papers looking for an order to fax.

Today I spent two hours in a room with one patient. She reminded me why I show up at work on a regular basis and the reason behind the endless voicemails, emails, faxes, prescriptions, labs, and everything else that fills my ten hours days at a desk.

Before today I’d only met her once, briefly, and even then she wore a mask so I only saw her eyes. We’d spoken on the phone a few times, I’d reviewed her chart notes and med list, and knew some of her medical history and hospitalization record. Before today she was a name, a medical record number, and a diagnosis that I vaguely attached to a half-remembered pair of eyes.

She’s young, in the way that anyone not older than me is still young. She was diagnosed recently enough that her eyes are still glazed over and she isn’t yet comfortable with medical jargon or at home in the sterile exam room. But she’s already been through enough that she’s terrified of the procedures planned for today. The doctor comes in and we go through the “pleasantries,” he gets her consent for the procedure, she gamely laughs at our jokes. She asks him about her treatment plan, how much more chemo she’s going to get. He explains the chemo regimen, then pauses and turns to the computer in the room to look at her medical chart, “Just let me check something here,” he opens a recent pathology report. “I’m looking at your disease here –” She pales, and exhales sharply.

My disease,” she muses.  She looks like someone just knocked the wind out of her. He stops talking and no one speaks for a moment. In all those details about chemotherapy cycles, blood counts, chromosomes, treatment plans, all she heard were those two words: my disease. It’s been assigned to her, it belongs to her, no one else.

“Of all the things you ever wanted for your very own…” I attempt to smile. She looks up briefly and smiles, “Yeah, right.”

I stayed in the room through both of the procedures then stayed after the doctor and the tech left. We talked more about her treatment, and I tried to answer her questions. I’m grateful to her for the opportunity to just sit with her, and let her ask questions as they came to her. For those two hours that I spent in the exam room with her, the voicemails, emails, and faxes didn’t matter and I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I don’t know if she’s any less terrified now, but I hope she knows that she isn’t all alone fighting her very own disease, it belongs to all of us.


  1. Rose,
    What a beautifully written and thoughtful essay! It could certainly appear in the Science and Health section of the NYTimes. Thank you for sharing it.

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