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#52 Experiences Near Death
Welcome Story Press 52. This week, we spend a bit of time with Liam, a former oncology trainee who meets with his therapist, recalling the reasons he entered the speciality in the first place and the events which led to his resignation. It’s inspired by the excellent book, Also Human, by Caroline Elton - about the inner lives of doctors. Shared with me by a friend at work (shoutout!)
This story’s soundtrack: I Wonder (Song For Michael) by Yasmin Williams (performed live), a really beautiful piece of music:
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#52 Experiences Near Death
‘Did you consider that these things might be related?’ Elizabeth looks at me with a clean-slate face that says she’s heard these things a thousand times but understands that each scenario, each individual’s tale, is as unique as the next.
The fan overhead struggles to battle against the heat pounding through the windows. I’m sitting in the exact spot the shaft of sun is reaching down into.
‘Can I move the chair?’ I ask. ‘I’m sweating here…’
‘Yes, of course. Sorry, Liam.’ She stands up, but sits down again when she realises I’m already moving the chair. I reseat myself in a shaded area. ‘Would you like me to open a window?’
‘Yes, please.’ She does, and a gust of wind reaches in and brushes my face.
‘Right… so, my question… Did you consider that these things might be related?’
I think about her question for a moment. Can the sight of a man with cancer, a couple of years ago, really have an impact on my ability to do my job today? Never had I considered such a thing.
‘No, of course not.’
‘Doesn’t it seem strange to you?’
‘Okay. Let’s try looking at this another way… Can you tell me what happened that day, if you can remember? Tell me the details: was it hot or warm, bright or dim, had the day been busy or quiet on the ward, was the patient friendly? Did you know his life story? Okay?’
‘Well, I can’t remember all of it. It was a few years ago.’
I close my eyes and pause. It takes me a few seconds to recall it all, but then it comes back to me and I see everything. ‘I had only been in post for barely an hour. There was no easing into the role. My seniors were on holiday, so it was just me and two others working the whole ward. It was a frosty March morning, and I was still defrosting. My palms and the top of my nose were pink. My eyes were still glazed with morning sleep. I was very nervous about working with cancer patients. I had these images of hairless people, clinging to life, deep bags around their eyes, but their smiles and stares were filled with hope that I would perform some magic trick upon them, ending the cancer, bringing back their hair and their life, and they’d sit up and stroll out of here a new person. When I approached my first patient, Qin Yongliang, I felt my breath get sucked out of my chest. He was a middle-aged Chinese man, perhaps 45, 50… He was quiet and unassuming. He looked at me the way a dog that wants a treat will look at you. Eyes wide and deep, eyebrows raised (though there were no actual brows there). The skin on his head was sagging like the contents of a bag had been removed from it leaving an uncertain mould. His hands were shaking above his legs, his skin lacked much colour at all.’
‘Did he remind you of your father?’
‘He did. Not so much because he was another Chinese man, like my Dad, but because he had the same traits I remember from Dad before he died. His hands shook like that, his skin was the same colour. His head, hairless, was so vulnerable and bare like that, where it had previously been such a thick and dark head of hair.’
‘You were only ten when your father died.’
‘Yeah… but what’s worse is he was only in his forties. I’m closer now to his age when he died than I am to my age when he died.’
‘What happened next? With the patient?’
‘I don’t really remember, to be honest. I don’t think we said anything to one another. Perhaps that would’ve helped. Perhaps I would’ve realised this man was nothing like Dad, had I had the chance to find that out. Almost immediately, I fainted. I fell to the ground and actually hit my head pretty bad on the floor.’
‘Did you think anything of it at the time?’
‘No, not at all. The doctors I spoke to put it down to stress. New ward, new job, et cetera. The expectations can be high, and the pressure you put on yourself… You’ll know better than anyone.’
Elizabeth nods. ’And that was a few years ago. What happened recently?’
‘I was three weeks into my specialty training programme. Three weeks… out of a total of six years. I was in nursery… As I left the hospital after a long shift, I was driving up the lanes of the car park, my mind clearly working through the many things that I had seen that day, including a young mum who died. Without thinking, I rammed the front of my car into the back of someone else’s. My car was fine, but the other person’s car had a deep dent in their back door. We exchanged details and I promised to cover the cost… It was my fault after all.’
‘I went back to work and got through three more weeks. Then, again after a shift, I was driving home. On my route home, there’s this place where you hit three consecutive roundabouts. I crossed the first two as normal, but the second one, I didn’t slow down when I approached it. My mind was completely blank. I was somewhere a million miles away. It happened to be peak commuter time, so the roundabout was full of cars. I flew out into the roundabout and hit a van carrying an Italian family who were here on holiday. They had three small children in the car… Everyone was fine, of course, but I can’t stop thinking about it… What if those children were not fine? How could I live with myself?’
‘Did you go back to work?’
‘No, I took some time off. When I returned, five days later, I handed in my notice.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘I knew it was to do with work. And I knew it had something to do with my Dad. But I didn’t know what else.’
‘It didn’t occur to you that maybe you went into oncology because your father died of cancer?’
‘No… Well, I don’t think so. Maybe I knew deep down. I don’t know.’
‘And maybe all these incidents took place because of the trauma, or perhaps psychological recognition, that you couldn’t heal your father’s cancer, that it was too late. And that healing other people was not a substitute?’
‘I don’t know. You’re the expert here.’
‘What have you done since?’
‘I haven’t worked for three months. I’ve been living with my mother.’
‘How’s that relationship?’
‘Because she’s Chinese and I’m a thirty year old man not working.’ I sigh. ‘And because our relationship has never really been the same since Dad died. She was a head teacher. The head of the family. But then she had to raise four children. It was impossible. She could never do it all and we suffered as a result.’
‘Do you feel better for quitting your oncology training?’
‘Yes. Definitely less stressed.’
‘Have you thought about what you will do next?’
‘A friend of mine suggested I take up general practice.’
‘And does that appeal to you?’
‘Perhaps… I don’t know…’
‘Hmm.’ Elizabeth nods and looks down at her notes. The heat here is unbearable. I can feel the sweat dripping through my shirt under my armpits and at my back, where it's touching the faux-leather back of the chair.
Not long later, she thanks me and tells me she has another appointment starting in two minutes.
In the car park, I sit behind the wheel of my car, riding my hands up and down the wheel, before sighing and resting my head on it. The thing no therapist ever tells you is that there’s no letting up. There’s no moment of relief. Even at your happiest, you still bear this extraordinary weight. Like the weight of a fat man sitting on your chest. I imagine his silky, sweaty grin as he bounces up and down on my chest. I put my hand to my heart and squeeze my eyes shut.
Minutes later, I’m driving out of the car park. The traffic lights are green but change to amber, and I slow to a stop just as they hit red. The sky is a blazing blue, and I think about Qin Yongliang, the man who looked like Dad, and the way he looked at me, helplessly. I don’t know anything about this world, but I know I can help people who really need it.
Eventually, the lights turn green and I drive forward and pull out onto the main road, in the direction of home.