“I cannot explain how it feels like when you have saved the life of a cancer patient who had come to the emergency department on the same night when you lost your father to the same disease.”
My name is Dr Manjari Shah. In the year 2014, I was working as a Medical Officer at a Primary Health Centre in Tehri Garhwal, my hometown, which is 100 km away from Dehradun in Uttrakhand.
After a busy workday, I was winding down and was sitting and contemplating things when my phone buzzed. It was my mother, and she was calling to express her concerns about my father. I was informed that he was facing difficulty swallowing food, and over the last month, his condition had worsened.
I spoke to my father in detail, and his symptoms made me numb. I gathered my strength and tossed aside the daughter in me and started thinking like a doctor.
After listening to all his complaints, the most probable diagnosis that came to my mind was the most dreaded disease in the modern world—Cancer.
I called a friend of mine, who is also a doctor, and together we discussed the various possibilities, but none of us could gather the courage to utter the word ‘Cancer.’
Finally, I decided to wait for a confirmed diagnosis.
At that point in time, I was also inundated with several personal uncertainties. I was a young professional—uncertain and anxious about my future. I had completed my MBBS degree and was working as a doctor, but wanted to pursue a specialisation.
During that crucial time, I got the call to attend the counselling to confirm my area of specialisation, but I did not want to attend it. However, my friend insisted upon it so I went ahead and opted for Oncology.
That is how I became an Oncology Resident at a hospital in Delhi. Ironically, that was never a subject I wanted to opt for.
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After multiple investigations, the diagnosis was made, and as suspected, it was Carcinoma Oesophagus or cancer of the food pipe. I took multiple opinions from almost all my friends and colleagues, but none of that resulted in anything concrete, and instead only delayed the treatment.
I can easily waive this off by admitting that I was young and anxious and did not know what the right course of action was, but I will call it my mistake.
We come from a humble background, and it took my family about a month to arrange for funds. One of my friends is a journalist and helped me get government aid, which eased some of the financial load.
My father started receiving radiation therapy in Dehradun, and after three fractions, I returned to Delhi and started working in the Cancer department.
In the OPD, I used to see patients suffering from cancer, on a daily basis. It was tough to be around them at times, but I carried on. I desperately wanted to be with my father, but couldn’t do so because of work commitments.
Meanwhile, my father completed 11 fractions of radiation. Everything, was seemingly fine until he complained of a continuous cough for 3-4 days. I rushed home, and we all found out that he had developed a complication known as ‘Tracheoesophageal fistula’—an abnormal development in which the food pipe and wind pipe get connected, and whatever a person eats, goes into their lungs.
As you can probably imagine, this complication can have severe, and sometimes, even fatal consequences. This diagnosis resulted in the intent of treatment being changed from curative to palliative. I wanted to keep him beside me and decided to take him to Delhi without caring about the expenses.
It was a surreal experience. My father was receiving palliative chemotherapy in the hospital where I was working. I would spend time with him every day before going on my rounds.
He completed five cycles of chemotherapy, with some side effects, but I felt he was doing good. The last cycle was due in one week.
I was on a night shift one day when I received a call from my mother at 11:00 p.m. saying that my father was vomiting. I suggested that she give him an antiemetic (a drug that is effective against vomiting and nausea) and take him to the nearby hospital if his condition worsened.
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Two hours later, I received another call from my mother who said that the vomiting did not stop, so my father had been admitted to a hospital. I was very distracted by a medical emergency—a cancer patient had been admitted to the hospital where I was working, with severe bleeding.
I lost my patience and lashed out at my parents. Then, I went back to work with the emergency team to stabilise my patient. The process took the entire night, and he was shifted to the ICU at 9:00 a.m. the next day.
My mother had not contacted me after her last call. Once my shift ended, I went back to my hostel, but there was a feeling of restlessness, and I was unable to concentrate on anything. I picked up the phone to call my father, but just as I was dialling his number, I received a call from my brother.
I took his call, and in a soft voice, he told me that my father was no more. I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying and did not respond. Sensing this, my brother repeated the sentence, “He is no more.”
Life has its ups and downs, and we are biologically conditioned to take pain and pleasure when we are born. However, knowing this is one thing, but experiencing true pain, is another.
I cannot explain how it feels like when you have saved the life of a cancer patient who had come to the emergency department on the same night when you lost your father to the same disease.
I also did not only lose my father; I lost my first patient because I was his doctor and had treated him from the first day of his disease to the last.
Initially, I use to regret my decision to become an Oncologist and have wanted to quit many times because I felt that it would remind me of my father. With time, however, things changed, and after recovering from that trauma, I now realise that this is the best job I could ever do. I can connect with my patients on a deeper level, and I know exactly how they are feeling and dealing with the unfortunate circumstances.
After around two months, I was in the elevator when an old acquaintance innocuously asked me about my dad and how he was doing. I smiled and answered that he was fine.
I needed some fresh air and quietly stepped into the corridor—breaking inside, but carrying myself outside.
Everyone has a moment when they understand life, and this was mine. Well, the weather was dull—the same as it was on the day I had received the first worried phone call from my mother—but I carried on.
I intend to find hope and sunshine every day and keep carrying on.
(Written by Manjari Shah. Edited by Gayatri Mishra)