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  • Kevin Hara

The Winning Ticket

Updated: May 8, 2022

I am a Pulmonologist and Critical Care Physician. Yet, I am the one lying in the hospital bed in the Intensive Care Unit. I am teleconferencing on my cell phone with my wife, Norma. She is in her doctor’s office receiving the results of her imaging studies. His words are well chosen, cautious and non-committal. A biopsy is advised. I recognize his approach. I have given this same talk many, many times in my own practice. I know what he is saying, she has cancer. I tell Norma not to worry; it will be okay. She sees through my words, just as I see through his. We have been together too long for us not to know what the other is thinking.

Norma and I are very different in how we approach our own health care. She is very conscientious. She always keeps her doctor’s appointments and diligently completes her screening studies. This is how her cancer was found. I, however, have not gone for a check-up for over 30 years. I had to collapse before my illness was identified. In fact, my last health examination was my mandatory exit physical from fellowship training. The doctor’s mantra is “Do as I say, not as I do.” Physicians need to do a better job taking care of themselves.

Over the ensuing weeks, we tried to be strong for each other while dealing with our own struggles. Fortunately, things have settled down and we are both healing well from our wounds. Norma, trooper as she is, completed the King’s Run 10K in the middle of her radiation therapy treatments. During the run, she recalled thinking, “I have cancer and my feet are sore. But I can still feel my feet. I can feel the warmth of the sun. I can hear the people talking. I am fortunate to be alive. I will be okay.”

I recall my first introduction to my own healthcare after my collapse. When Norma called her doctor to inform her of my predicament, she said, “Bring him over. Now.” I questioned, “Now? Tonight?” She said “Yes, I will wait for you.” As I entered her office, she called to me from her back office. “I know you don’t want to be here, but I’m glad you came.” Later that evening, she confided in me, “I was in the same situation as you.” When my colleagues began hearing about my illness, many have come out with similar stories. The years of self-neglect and the attempts at self-diagnosis, before finally accepting the need for help. Seeking help is tough for physicians. Our training and culture are one of having super-human abilities. George Abraham, President of the American College of Physicians, has stated “Physicians are expected to be the people who never get exhausted and never complain about themselves.” We are built to hide our own pain and emotions. Physicians are good at this, so much so that we often hide it from our own selves.

I wonder why God chose to inflict these afflictions on Norma and me at the same time. Maybe we needed to experience this together to see his true purpose. Norma keeps asking me “What have you learned?” Norma has a surreal perspective. She feels that she was plucked out of “life,” yet still able to see the world turning below without her. She views the experience as a gift; like she won the lottery. The winning tickets are all around us. However, we need to recognize that we have it and we need to cash it in. Norma cashed it in, and it changed her perspective on life. She says that she has come to realize what is important in life. She had an encounter recently when a woman yelled at her because of a parking space. She thought to herself “There is cancer in the world, and you are fretting over a parking space. Really?” Maybe he chose to afflict me at the same time to make me realize that I should not rely completely on her to carry me. I needed to accept responsibility and take command of my own wellbeing.

Physicians need to do better for themselves. They need to take command of their own situation. If they do not, they will not be able to care for their patients. We need our doctors to take care of our community. We need them to take care of each other. Self-care involves physical, emotional, and spiritual factors. Sometimes we need a wake-up call, even if it means from our own ICU bed. It is not too late.


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