Although some readers indicated that the letter was well-written and should to be sent, others suggested that adding specific details and examples might be beneficial. Still others noted that in its poetry and subtlety, the letter’s message might be lost. Synthesizing all this commentary and adding the essence of my father’s note that “[He] should not be wimpy by giving [me] the responsibility of sending it…[and that] we can all sign it individually or as a family,” I've revised the letter as follows:
Dear Dr. It’s-All-About-the-Tumors,So, what’s your take this time around?
We are writing to inform you that DianatheWriter passed away peacefully and in no pain over Memorial Day weekend after 11 days in hospice. As you may be aware, a number of years ago, when she heard you speak, she was so impressed by your commitment to quality of life for terminally ill patients that when she came to have need of an oncologist herself, you were her first and only choice. And, although we cannot begin to comprehend the virulence of her disease or the speed with which it ravaged her body and spirit, the long weeks that led to this sad outcome did give us ample reminders of some of life’s most important lessons. We have chosen to share a few of these with you now in the hope that you will, in her memory, make an equally strong commitment to provide compassionate care to family members of these very same terminally ill patients.
First and foremost, we were reminded that people are sacred beings, not merely collections of body parts, and certainly more than the tumors and lesions that indiscriminately assault the physical vessels that house their essence and spirit. May you always possess the necessary wisdom, time, and compassion to see your patients (and their loved ones) in this important way.
We also were reminded that we’re lucky to be part of a strong and loving family whose members care deeply about each other, especially when one of us is ill. As such, we repeatedly sought out honest, realistic, forthright, and regularly forthcoming assessments about DianatheWriter’s illness, especially at critical junctures in the treatment process. Sadly, it was difficult to obtain such assessments from you, and even when we did, they were conveyed by telephone only. Never were we afforded an opportunity to sit with you face-to-face (and thus have access to your body language and facial expressions) to hear your thoughts and garner your insights.
We learned that nurses and social workers often are the best conduits of information from physicians, but only when these professionals can read doctors’ handwriting. Sadly, on numerous occasions, they were unable to read yours, leaving us without up-to-date information and—perhaps more important—opening the door to the very real possibility of compromised patient treatment and care.
Through the kind words and gestures of most of DianatheWriter’s physicians and caregivers, we were reminded about the value of dignity and respect for all people, but most especially for those whose lives are drawing to a close. We were reminded, too, about compassion and kindness and how crucial they are to those of us walking a path of loss. When you called to recommend hospice and inform us that your office would make all the necessary arrangements, how consoled we might have been had you offered us a few brief words of comfort, of sympathy, of support. Sadly, they were glaringly absent.
Henceforth, we will carry these lessons in our hearts as a lasting tribute to DianatheWriter and her well lived life. It is our hope that as you continue to deal with the families of terminally ill patients, you, too, will carry these lessons in your heart and, more important, will make them the work of your hands.