Turning lemons into lemonade

On a recent morning commute, I caught a StoryCorps segment on National Public Radio.

This week’s piece featured a father and his 10-year-old daughter. At 4 years of age the girl developed a rare form of bone cancer in her spine. She went on to have 8 separate surgeries on her back. At one point 2 titanium rods were implanted the length of her vertebral column. She also received repeated courses of chemotherapy in an effort to combat the cancer.

Her father tells the girl what is was like for him to see her in the ICU after her first surgery: so many tubes going in and coming out of her small body. She was so swollen, he didn’t even recognize her at first. Gradually, she began to get better.

Now, at 10 years of age, she has been declared cancer free. But on her small body she still bears the scars that testify to the many procedures and treatments that she’s had to endure over the course of her short life.

One scar runs the length of her belly from the xyphoid process to the mons pubis. Another scar marks the location of the feeding tube that once entered her stomach.

When she was in the hospital, her father used colored felt-tipped pens to draw designs on her skin, incorporating the scars into the drawings. The long midline abdominal scar became the green stem of a brightly colored flower; the circular G-tube scar (she calls it her second belly button) became a butterfly. Her father used creative insight to turn something horrible into something beautiful for his suffering daughter.

We’ve all heard about what we can do when we are inundated with lemons. We can suck them to savor their sourness, or we can turn them into lemonade.

Many times in the world of medicine we can do little more than offer empathetic support to patients in the throes of chronic debilitating illness. Even though to us clinicians it might not seem to be a lot, to patients, a positive outlook radiating from the face of their caregiver means a great deal.

If perception is crucial, perspective is everything.

This piece was originally published in the August 2013 issue of “Connecticut PA” (Volume 3, Number 2).

“Notes from a Healer” — Small Potatoes

When it comes to the relative weight of medical diagnoses, perspective is everything. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerSmall Potatoes — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.