The Inability to Cure Emotions

On the last day of year 2015, I was at the Pediatrics ER wishing that time would pass by as fast as it could so that I can finally go home and rest. I had been on a 12-hour shift the last 5 days; in a hectic ER wherein the daily census was twice as much than usual. I had a terrible upper respiratory tract infection: I was sneezing all the time, coughing at inappropriate moments, having shortness of breath. I felt that my face mask was suffocating me, so breathing was not an easy task.

As the triage nurse was handing the information sheet of a new patient, I thought, "Not another one.." Tired and unenthusiastic, I finished the discharge papers I was typing. The medical clerk was already interviewing the patient so I just popped in to listen to the history instead.

As I was listening to the medical history, I began to realize that this child's problem was different from all the cough and colds, diarrheas, and vomitings we've been getting all day. He came in for rashes. He seemed like a well child: playful, interactive, cheerful, smart. I looked at the rash, examining it closely, a erythematous patch on the child's abdomen.

I had no idea what it was, honestly. When mother showed us the initial of the blood count results done earlier that day, a chill came down my spine. His WBC count was 100 times as much as what would normally be in a normal patient. This was in contrast to his platelets which were 10 times lower than you would have liked. Being a physician, you take the history and correlate it with physical examination findings and diagnostics; then you see what could be the diagnosis. At the back of my head, I was thinking about leukemia. It was like textbook words jumping out of its page and giving form to this little boy.

His mother however, had no idea of what it meant. As my resident explained the situation to her, I could see the disbelief in her eyes, that quickly changed to fear, panic and confusion. I could see tears welling up.. but she maintained a proper composure.

Back in "home base", where we did all the paperworks, I glimpsed in their direction finding the kid cuddled by his mom, her face taking shape of a worried expression that only a mother could procure. A few minutes later, she approached us asking how come she didn’t notice that her child was sick? That question struck me. It had the tone of self-blame.

I wanted to tell her, "No, it’s not your fault. You took good care of your child. Nobody could’ve forseen this." I held my impulses.

How does a mother cope with the sudden news that her child may have cancer? As a doctor, you size up a patient's life expectancy. To us, its science, its the course of the disease. To a mother, its her child. The child that she took care of in her womb, that she gave birth to, that she fed, changed, taught and How do you comfort her and tell her it isn't her fault? How do you cure two people when the prognosis is bad?

With an aching heart, I know that there’s nothing I can do to make the situation better, to lift these heavy hearts, to lessen the fear and worry.

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