The rewards of being a physician

You know, sometimes medicine sucks, particularly oncology. Oh, it’s not so bad for surgeons, particularly breast surgeons, because we can cure many of the patients we operate on. But for solid tumor oncologists, who deal with diseases that current medicine can’t cure but only palliate day in and day out can, if you don’t get adequate rewards for it, be soul-crushing. (That’s one reason that I ultimately went into surgical oncology rather than medical oncology; I found I just wasn’t cut out to deal with the kinds of patients medical oncologists do.) Those of us in academics do it for a lot less money than most private practitioners, and we’re expected to do research and compete successfully for outside grant funding.

Some days, I, like many, am seriously tempted to chuck it all and going to work in an E.R. somewhere week and doing shift work the rest of my life at 40 hours a week (weeks like this last one, for instance).

Then, via Bora, I find out about a story like this:

DURHAM, N.C. — For three years, Ara Everett has been treated for Stage 4 breast cancer and a brain tumor. But she has survived longer than she and her family ever expected.

They give the credit to Dr. Heather Shaw, an oncologist at Duke University Medical Center.
Everett’s daughter, Erica Green, wrote to NBC17 to ask Triangle Wishes to honor Shaw and the medical staff that have provided such personal care for her mother.

“How do you say thank you to doctors, the people that save your life?” Green wrote in her e-mail. “We hear all of the bad stuff about doctors these days. It’s time to thank them for the awesome work they do to benefit so many.”

Triangle Wishes arranged for Piper’s Tavern to provide a luncheon for Shaw and the Oncology Department staff at the Duke Medical Center.

“We just wanted to say, from the appointment coordinators who greet her and see her standing, struggling and say, ‘Sit down, Ms. Everett, we got it,’ to the nurses that whisk her back and take care of her and bring her crackers and soda if they see she’s jittery to Dr. Shaw and all the surgeons, we just really wanted to say thank you to everybody in a big way,” Green said.

“I think the doctor was truly touched by it, and it was really nice to be a part of it,” said Dan Hurley, of Piper’s Tavern.

Video can be found here.

I have just two short thoughts. First, there is no reward greater than knowing you have saved the life of a fellow human being. It may seem to be a thankless job many times, but what other job lets you have this sort of an impact on the life of a fellow human being? My other thought is that this story puts a human face on the disease we are working to conquer. I’ve pointed out before why physician-scientists are important and how, even if our grasp of the fine points of molecular biology can’t compare, we think differently about disease, how we understand the human cost by facing it day in and day out, and how we know what the shortcomings are in our current treatments and what’s needed to do better.

That’s because patients like Ara Everett teach us these things.


  1. #1 Abel PharmBoy
    May 25, 2006

    As I’ve said before here and on Archived Insolence, I am one PhD who stands in awe of all you physician-scientists do. Perhaps it is because I am a basic scientist in cancer research who has trained at the bench with MDs, but nothing inspires me more than working with folks like you and Dr Shaw.

    Yours is an incredibly thankless job after the more than a decade of training (esp for surgeons) and why you people try to keep active research programs on top of the academic medicine demands is beyond me. Thankfully you do out of your thirst for knowledge and desire to do more for your patients.

    My Mom was an Ara Everett; hundreds of thousands of us thank you for your commitment to both science and the practice of medicine.

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