Sean had not felt well for two weeks. He was tired and ran a low-grade temperature. His joints ached and his muscles were sore. At first he thought he had the flu, but he did not improve. Nevertheless, he continued to slug it out at work, putting in his usual 12 or more hours. He would not admit to his wife how he felt, but did agree that he looked pale.
After developing bruises, Sean consented to see his PCP though he barked at his wife for being “overly cautious.” After a blood count, Sean’s PCP immediately referred him to my office. Sean made sure the consultation was the last appointment in the afternoon because he wanted to miss as little work as possible. In the waiting room, Sean worked on his laptop until his named was called.
After the consultation, Sean and his wife returned to the waiting room. He handed his laptop and phone to his wife, and held her hand. He said not a word. When his name was called to arrange a return appointment, he tenderly asked his wife to help him up and they made their way to the secretary’s window.
Before the secretary could offer a choices of times, Sean quietly asked, “Could I please have the first appointment in the morning?”
His wife was dumbfounded at the change in his demeanor and attitude. What had happened to her abrupt, workaholic husband?
During his consultation, Sean had heard the following words: acute leukemia, hospitalization, intensive chemotherapy, transfusions, infections, prognosis, bone marrow transplant, survival, disability. In one hour, his life had turned upside down. In the safe redoubts of his work and family, Sean had felt secure. Now all seemed lost. Sean had not only entered the world of sickness but also the world of suffering.
During his appointment the next morning, Sean told me his frustrations of how he had lived. “Am I a jerk?” he moaned. He recounted all he had taken advantage of so he could pursue his own personal goals, often to the detriment of his family. I shared with him a parable that Jesus taught: “The ground of a rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods … But God said to him. ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you’ ” (Luke 12: 16-20).
Sean said, “This parable’s about me. All I had carefully planned out for my life will never happen.”
He was deeply troubled.
This mental anguish accompanying an illness can have profound effects. Suffering makes one question who he is and what he is doing.
Sean had defined himself by his accomplishments in his business. Now all of a sudden he did not know how his success at work would help him cope with his illness.
Suffering makes us realize we have limitations on what we can do and what we want to do. Sean went from 5 a.m. power workouts at the club and an exhilarating 12-hour-plus schedule at work to needing help walking across a room to talk with the office secretary.
Though we may not control the situation that causes suffering, we can control how we respond to it. Suffering provides opportunities for personal change and development. Reconsidering goals, motives, and relationships can turn something bad into something holy. Studies have shown that such positive changes brought about by suffering to refocus one’s life may last even if the illness is cured.
What did Sean want to do with the life he had left? He considered his wife and two daughters. If he had limited time, not some vague “long life” we all expect, how did he want his family to remember him?
As he left the office for the hospital, Sean had to ask his wife to help him walk to his car in the parking lot and drive him to the hospital. While propped up in the passenger seat, he started by saying things to his wife that should have been said long ago. It was time to reboot his relationships with his wife and his girls.
Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, writer and director, and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.