"Erbitux or Stivarga," said Dr. Eapen, our long-time oncologist. "I’ll write them down for you, so you can research them." He pulled a pen out of his pocket and looked around the room for something to write on. He spotted a business card on Michael’s bedside table.
"May I?" he asked, gesturing to the card.
With a nod from me, he picked it up, then read the front: Mobile Hyperbaric Centers, Vaughn D. Hall, MD, FAAFP, Medical Director.
"You know," he said softly (he said everything softly; unlike most doctors, Eapen always exuded gentleness instead of confidence), "This isn’t actually a bad idea."
During this hospital stay, presumably one of the last of many, Michael had been seen by a parade of specialists. A surgeon suggested that Michael consider hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a new treatment where patients are bombarded with oxygen in a setting very similar to sitting in an airplane (complete with the popping ears). The surgeon described the treatment as miraculous. A hospitalist later in the day described the technique as snake oil (not using those terms, but coming pretty close). A gastroenterologist shrugged and said, “You could try it.”
Dr. Eapen quizzed us for a few minutes about whether Michael already had an appointment with the Hyperbaric Center, and then he suggested that Michael see him after a few weeks of oxygen treatment.
What did it mean? Was Dr. Eapen really hopeful about the new treatment protocol, or, seeing the hopelessness of Michael’s case, was he doing the physician’s equivalent of punting? We didn’t know.
It’s easy to assume that, in the face of death, you would be willing to try anything. It’s not true. Most patients who’ve gone through cancer more than once start to draw lines in the sand. No more chemo. No more radiation. Some chemo, but only certain kinds. Radiation, but no chemo. We weren’t any different. Radiation was off the table. I was willing to try more chemo, but I wasn’t willing to push Michael to do so. I could watch him die, but I couldn’t watch him be tortured. Not any more.
Of course, when you haven’t gone through it personally, you’re still in the idealistic, try anything mode. When Michael sent an email to his Presbyterian congregation that his cancer had recurred and that he, as their pastor, probably didn’t have long to live, most of his parishioners responded with an outpouring of love. Some, however, searched for their own comfort by suggesting a crazy array of “therapies.”
One suggested that Michael wear a metal cross that her brother had worn while fighting in Vietnam.
Another suggested that Michael investigate the properties of some curative mushroom.
A third recommended a juice regimen coupled with five-a-day coffee enemas. Seriously. Coffee enemas. I pictured Michael passed out on the bed from disease and drugs while his butt never stopped twitching.
We haven’t yet heard from the parishioner who earns his fortune through the pyramid scheme that is Mona Vie, but it’s only a matter of time.
Their suggestions are well-intended but irritating. But the part of me that loves them (which is really the biggest part of me) understands that they are reaching for something. Clearly, we are too, because calling Vaughn D. Hall, MD, FAAFP is the first thing on today’s to do list.