A letter from a physician to her former employer.
This may seem to come out of the blue for you, but for me, it is something I have thought about often. You will likely not remember the details like I do, so let me spark your memory.
It was a Thursday, and my husband, who I have known since I was 19 — not unlike you and your wife — was diagnosed with metastatic cancer at the age of 29. At the time, we vaguely had heard of this rare cancer, but despite going through medical school, none of us — including you — could remember any specifics. That Friday you graciously let me take the day off to accompany my husband for a biopsy. The weekend felt very long as we waited for the results of the pathology stains.
That Monday came, and we were still waiting. We had no idea if the cancer was low-, intermediate-, or high-grade. Did my husband have days, weeks, months, years, decades? All we did know was that as doctors, metastatic cancer to the liver didn’t sound very hopeful.
Later that day, we finally got a preliminary read: intermediate-grade. Not high-grade, thank God. Intermediate-grade gave us some hope that maybe this is something we could manage. Maybe we could beat the odds.
My Mom insisted Monday that we stay up all night to pray; it happened to be a religious day. I am not a religious person. I do not pray. I don’t even know what I believe (but I sure as hell would love if there was a heaven and a loving God), but I was desperate, so I decided I would pray for the first time in years, maybe decades.
I texted you about needing Tuesday off, and you called back immediately. I assumed to find out more about the pathology results, so I picked up ready to tell you the not-great but not-the-worst news that the cancer was intermediate in grade. But you did not ask about my husband. Instead, you told me I had to come back to work by Tuesday, and my absence would be inconvenient for the practice. Inconvenient. Inconvenient. Inconvenient. What on Earth did that mean? My husband had metastatic cancer, and my brain could not comprehend anything else.
I admit, I blew up at you at first. I’m sure you remember. I asked how you would feel if it was your wife, and you admitted that you hoped you would never be in my shoes. You sounded guilty, as if you knew you had done something momentarily inhumane; you asked a pregnant woman who just found out her husband had metastatic cancer to come back to work after two days off. People take off more time for pink eye or for the flu, but no, my mental anguish, my emotional sickness — because that’s what I was, I was emotionally sick to my stomach — was not a valid reason.
In your defense, you tried to apologize but for the wrong reason. You said you misunderstood and had no idea I was asking off for a religious reason. Let me make one thing very clear. I did not want that day off for a religious reason. I happened to use that time to pray out of desperation, but I needed to take that day off for my husband, for my family. If we were atheists, I would have asked for the exact same thing.
However, when it came down to it, I needed a job. I didn’t know if my husband could work, and we were about to bring a baby in the world (perhaps earlier than planned as my grief started my contractions early), so Wednesday I came right back to work. I needed health insurance. My husband and unborn child needed health insurance. I couldn’t risk you firing me over this, so I sucked it up. I cried in front of my patients. They asked what was wrong, and I forced a smile, swallowed the knot in my throat, and I focused on them and their problems. I was a doctor, and I wasn’t allowed to have problems of my own.
My husband is a very strong man. He should have needed me, his wife, but he didn’t ask me to stay at home with him. He didn’t ask me to pray for him. He didn’t ask for a single thing.
Our oncologist appointment was a full week later, and he was the first person to give us a hopeful prognosis. I was finally allowed to breathe, because that’s exactly what it felt like, like I had been holding my breath for ten days straight.
However, that prior Monday, when I saw your call and thought “he really cares” but instead, you essentially told me my husband having cancer was inconvenient to your business, that was the day I started looking for another job.
I’m not entirely sure why I wrote this. I think for a lot of reasons. First, because I believe I am a genuinely good doctor and you could have easily kept me. I am nice, caring, and though I may not be the fastest doctor, I truly and wholeheartedly love and feel. I am a good person, and that does not make me weak.
Maybe part of me feels like I never stood up for my husband, the man who would do anything for me. Did I do everything for him? So I’d like to officially state, my husband, my son, any future children we may have will always come first. I promise to continue always giving the highest quality care for my patients, but in order for me to do this, I need to insure my own mental health by taking care of my family.
However, eventually it did dawn on me, the reason I felt the need to write this. And I realized it was never for you to read. I wrote it for me and my husband, but I chose to share this for anyone who can read this and make a positive change.
This is more than a story of a single family. The bigger picture is the culture we have created as doctors. We are the ones who have perpetuated the belief that we are superhuman, infallible to the illnesses that plague others. However, as doctors, we need to be allowed to be sick, physically or mentally. We need to be allowed to grieve. Who are we to heal others if we don’t allow ourselves and each other to heal?
No, we are not superhuman. We are simply human, and that’s OK.
The author is an anonymous physician.