I’ve been having a hard time at my job. Certain aspects of it have been getting to be too much for me.
I still enjoy the counseling. I enjoy visiting patients and families and I think I do good work with them. It’s so meaningful and restorative to me to be able to help someone through such a challenging point in their life. I often reflect on when I, myself, was in a similar situation and how grateful I was for the people around me who stepped in to help see me through it. I sometimes think that is what life is about — a series of interactions in which when we are strong, we help others and when we are not, they help us.
What I’ve been struggling with is constantly hearing about illness and disease. Every Thursday I spend two hours in an interdisciplinary team (IDT) meeting. I sit at a long boardroom table, my high heels crossed against the table leg, my case load binder open in front of me, paperwork and pens and sticky notes nudging into everyone’s else’s piles of the same. On my left is our social worker, on my right is one of our nurses. Across from me sits another nurse, sandwiched between the chaplain and the massage therapist. At the end of the table the two home health aides sit next to each other. At the head of the table our team doctor sits between our clinical director and office secretary.
And for two hours we discuss all of the patients we currently care for. We begin with all of those who died in the last week — what their death was like, how the family is doing, when the funeral or memorial service will be and any psychosocial risks for the bereaved. After that, we discuss the new patients we have taken on in the last week — their diagnosis, whether they are at home or in the hospital or in a nursing home, who is caring for them, what kind of help they might need, and what our team can do for them and their family as a whole. Finally, after that, we discuss all of our current patients — any change in health status or caregiver needs, and who is visiting when.
Words and phrases like stage four colon cancer, mets (metastatic) to the bone, lung cancer, swelling in the brain, morphine, lung mets, albuterol, prostate cancer, bleed out, bed sores, mets to the ovaries, liver cancer, severe hip pain, hospital bed, brain cancer, terminal, alzheimers, dementia, breast cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, pancreatic cancer, aortic stenosis, tumors, renal disease, COPD, failure to thrive, and on and on.
I can’t stand these words. They make my belly go cold with fear. As I sit there for those two hours, hearing these words tossed around I literally feel those places in my body as they’re said. My liver. My lungs. My heart. My brain.
I think about Greg and I think about my life and I think about how much I don’t want to get sick ever. I think about how much I want to do with my time here and how much I want to have kids. And I can’t help but think these things and sometimes I can’t get these words and phrases out of my head. Literally, sometimes I wake up in the mornings with the word scopolamine in my head. (It’s a kind of pain killer.)
And you know, I look around the room at the doctors and nurses and social workers and secretaries and although some of the nonclinical people like me will squirm at a particularly graphic description of someone’s medical problem, for the most part, none of them seem to be at all haunted by these words.
I know that so much of my fear has to do with having lost both of my parents to cancer and having watched that disease ravage their bodies over the years, but I can’t help wondering how no one else seems to be haunted by all this disease-talk like I am. I’m of the opinion that what we think about grows — another reason I hate having these thoughts and words and illnesses in my head all the time. But then I think about oncologists who work closely with disease every day — where do they put these things? How do they wake up in the morning without the word cancer on the forefront of their thoughts?
And I just keep wondering, is there a way for me to do this job without constantly ingesting it all like this??