What the Doctor Ordered

We circled him with our impotent answers, our guarded gestures of help. Circled while the cancer waged its all-out assault, stripping him of vigor and hope.

Dick nodded in his bed during most of the family meeting, the one hastily convened before his hospital discharge. His wan, sunken eyes surveyed the jury: family doctor and oncologist; surgical and hospice nurse; wife and son. The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was made weeks after he first voiced his vague complaints. The tumor had crouched in the shadow cast by other, more demanding diseases: diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypothyroidism, and cryptogenic cirrhosis of the liver. Now he clung to his hospital bed like a drowning man clinging to flotsam. Dick knew we couldn’t cure him. He demanded neither relief from pain nor lies about the length of time remaining. What, then, were his plaintive eyes looking for?

As a Catholic physician, I have always wrestled with the formulaic Christian answer to suffering: that it brings us closer to the pierced and abandoned Christ of the Cross. These words, of course, roll off most of my patients. And because my life is largely blessed, they don’t really register with my own experience. Yet in this identifiable figure of Christ lies the whole of humanity, a mankind for whom suffering insinuates to the core. It falls flatly, indiscriminately on both the innocent and self-abused, the hypervigilant and reckless...

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About the Author

David Loxterkamp is a family physician who practices in Belfast, Maine. He is the author of A Measure of My Days: The Journal of a Country Doctor (University Press of New England).