Longform

BUYING TIME PART II

part 1 of 2
Dr. Adam Myers arrived at Denver General Hospital in 1974, following a residency program at the University of Colorado in which he specialized in hematology, the study of blood diseases such as anemia and leukemia. He was soon appointed DGH's director of ambulatory services. But he came by his oncology training almost by accident.

Dr. George Moore arrived at DGH at about the same time as Myers. Although he was one of the top cancer surgeons in the country and had been nominated for a Nobel prize for his work, he was a cutter and needed someone trained in oncology treatments to do follow-up care. Reluctant as Moore might be to admit it, sometimes the fight against cancer required more than a sharp knife and steady hands. Since no one at DGH specialized in oncology, Moore sought out Myers.

There were some similarities in treatments, especially for cancers of the blood. But a lot was new to Myers, who caught up with marathon reading sessions and crash-course seminars.

He was growing in other ways as well. Myers was finding that everything he had learned in medical school about keeping his distance from patients might not be helping them.

By the mid-Seventies, medical science was beginning to make real advances in fighting, even curing, some cancers. It was no longer common practice to keep patients' diagnoses from them. Still, the general rule was for doctors to remain detached, to look at disease through a one-way mirror.

That's why Myers was surprised to find that his patients were often the ones trying to comfort him. He was particularly struck by the heroics of a middle-aged man with colon cancer.

While it is not always a true measure, cancer patients often gauge their health on their ability to maintain or even gain weight, especially if the gain can't be attributed to edema. But this particular patient's response puzzled Myers.

Undressed, the man was all bone, and he seemed to waste even further between visits. And yet his weight somehow remained constant. Myers accidently discovered why one afternoon when he picked up the man's pants. The pockets were filled with rocks.

"I didn't want you to feel bad because I was losing weight," the man explained to his humbled doctor.

But the greatest lesson Myers would learn in his early days as an oncologist he learned from a woman.

She had already undergone a mastectomy to remove a breast when she developed a persistent cough and was referred to his office. X-rays revealed tumor nodules throughout her lungs; the film looked like she had been hit with a load of buckshot.

Myers went after the cancer with heavy doses of chemotherapy. The treatment was agony, and it wasn't always certain which would kill her first, the disease or the cure. But she held on and the cancer retreated. Months later her X-rays were clear except for a little scar tissue. Thanking her doctor, the forty-year-old woman went home to Sterling and her husband and daughters.

Not long afterward Myers bumped into the private-practice surgeon who'd performed the woman's mastectomy. He'd heard of Myers's success treating her and patted him on the back for a job well done. Walking away, Myers felt a little lighter on his feet. Yes, indeed, death had taken a pasting this time. He was still congratulating himself when his pager went off.

It was a long-distance call from Sterling. The woman's husband said she was complaining of terrible headaches and was having trouble controlling her right hand.

Myers arranged for an air ambulance to fly the couple to Denver. When they arrived, the woman was immediately whisked off for a CAT scan of her brain.

A few hours later, Myers sat in his office. Across the desk were the woman and her husband; in front of the doctor were the results of the CAT scan and its inevitable consequences. The woman's brain was filled with cancer. There was no doubt she would die, probably within months.

Myers didn't know what to say. All he knew was that death had won--and as long as he sat behind his desk, he was safe from having to deal with the woman's fears.

The room was quiet, but something in Myers's face and the way he kept his eyes on his desk said all that was necessary. The woman's husband suddenly began crying.

Myers glanced up and forced himself to look at the woman. She had summoned her courage to force a small smile.

Ashamed of trying to buffer himself from the tragedy, Myers stood up and walked around his desk. The woman stood, too, and they met, throwing their arms around each other.

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Steve Jackson