I Treated My Favorite High School Teacher For Brain Cancer & It Changed My Perspective On Healing Forever
He was smart and kind, but at the same time, tough as nails. He didn't let us get away with anything. As kids, we appreciated that. He didn't aim to be a tall friend of sorts, beloved by all the cool kids. We didn't need another friend running through the halls in the cultish insanity of high school. We needed a leader, someone to steer us.
And Mr. Thompson was that. He demanded our respect, by asking us to respect ourselves. He would bark out orders on the lacrosse field and we would run until our legs burned. He would quiz you on a Moby Dick passage and you'd feel a throb of shame if you'd skipped the reading. You sweated at practice. You did the reading. Because you didn't want to let Mr. Thompson down. He respected you too much for that.
But lying in the hospital bed, puffy-faced from steroids, my former English teacher did not look godly at all. He looked very, very human.
"How are the headaches today?" I asked.
"Better," he said.
"And the speech?"
"Same. I get it but I can't." He motioned with his hand to speed his words along, to no avail. "You know..." he said finally, his voice trailing off.
"Yes," I answered. "I know."
It was 10 years out from high school now, and I was in my training as a neurology resident. Ten years is a world away from high school, but a blink of an eye for an adult. Mr. Thompson had gone on with his life, teaching English, coaching lacrosse, handing out advice and humor to 10 graduating high school classes, while I had gone off to college, then medical school, and finally residency. Now here we were.
This was a man who could make stubborn, hormone-laden sophomores appreciate Shakespeare yet could not say "happy hippopotamus." There were holes now where words once lived.
In a way, it is curious how I ended up on there, on the side of his hospital bed. For years, I had struggled with the decision to become a doctor or a writer. An English major in college, I was also pre-med. I interned at the Buffalo News over the summer and shadowed a psychiatrist on the weekends.
The right and left side of my brain duked it out until finally I decided. I was in love with the brain—so I would become a neurologist. Standing there, with his chart heavy in my hand, I realized it could have just as easily gone the other way. I could have become a writer or an English teacher. His colleague perhaps, instead of his doctor.
"Can you repeat after me?" I asked. "Happy hippopotamus."
"Ha...hap...ha..." He gave up with a lopsided smile and a shrug.
I wasn't trying to be facetious. "Happy hippopotamus" is one of many phrases that neurologists employ for the bedside language exam. We have quite a few in our arsenal: "Methodist Episcopal," "kay-kay-kay-kay," and the old standby "no ifs, ands, or buts."
This was a man who could make stubborn, hormone-laden sophomores appreciate Shakespeare yet could not say "happy hippopotamus." The tumor was sprawling over the left side of his brain, plowing through swathes of cortex, and leaving blank spaces and headaches in its wake. There were holes now where words once lived.
Someday, the tumor would take over, halting language, thoughts, memories, and breathing. Life. But not yet.
I wasn't there for the initial diagnosis. Mr. Thompson had a real neurologist for that, a seasoned neuro-oncologist who pulled up the MRI, floored him with the diagnosis, and then mapped out a plan of attack. I was not a general, just a foot soldier showing up with reinforcements on the back end.
The war metaphor falls short, however. This was not a war we could win. We didn't lie to each other about this.
Glioblastoma multiforme is an incurable, take-no-prisoners disease. One year survival maximum, give or take a few months with radiation and chemotherapy. Nothing could stop the cluster of cells that one day, for no reason at all, just went awry. The cells that grew into a grape, then a golf ball, and a baseball, a grapefruit, and so on. Someday, the tumor would take over, halting language, thoughts, memories, and breathing. Life.
But not yet. For now, we were using every tool at our disposal, blasting the monster with steroids, shrinking it just long enough to buy my teacher another round of chemotherapy, a couple more months with his wife, a pause in his headaches. It was a battle of inches. He was a coach—he knew you couldn't win them all. But, by God, you could try. And we tried.
I rounded on Mr. Thompson every day that week. Every day, I joined him at battle, by his side. I would talk to him, go over his labs, make a tweak here, write a medication there. I would test his language, ask about his headaches. The role-reversal was disconcerting.
As his English failed him, he prayed for my science to help. This man who had been godly in my teenage mind was now asking me to be godly. And I was failing. I had done the reading, but it wasn't enough, not even close.
The better half of healing is just this—kindness.
After a week, the steroids had done their job. Mr. Thompson could go home to fight another day. On the day of discharge, I was writing up orders and double-checking prescriptions when he said something that changed me. And changed the way I viewed my work forever.
"I'm glad," he said with some struggle, "that it was you." It took me a while to figure out what he meant. "As your doctor?" He nodded.
I didn't know what to say. I was not glad he was my patient. I was not glad he was dying of brain cancer. Nor was I glad to be his doctor: someone still learning the tools of the trade who had to call the attending for any complex decision. So I just asked him, "Why?"
This man who had been godly in my teenage mind was now asking me to be godly. And I was failing.
"Because." His smile was still lopsided. But he looked calm, confident now in his street clothes. "You were always kind."
The word, in its simplicity, stunned me.
Not brilliant, not perfect, just kind. He was not asking me to cure him. It was impossible. He didn't need my knowledge, my scouring every textbook and article I could find on the disease. He didn't mind my awkward questions about his headaches, about a happy hippopotamus. He didn't need me to be G-d. All he needed from me was to be kind.
Mr. Thompson died about six months later. I wasn't there asking questions, offering medication or even kindness. He was at home with his family, where he belonged. Trite as it sounds, he had led a good life, and he would be missed.
English classes would never hear his thundering rendition of Beowulf. Girls on the lacrosse team would no longer be spurred on by his bellowing across the field, his unerring belief in them. But scores of students would turn into adults, like I did, and remember him.
I cried when I heard. Not because I knew him very well, because I didn't. But I cried anyway, for him and for me. For all the lessons he would never be able to give and all the students who would miss his teaching and his kindness.
I think of him still every day, when I walk into my office. Because kindness, I have learned, is medicine too. The better half of healing is just this—kindness. And if you can't offer a patient anything else, at least you can offer your kindness.
It's been 15 years since my residency, a blink of an eye. I'm grateful that Mr. Thompson was my patient. Because even though I was his doctor, he was still my teacher. In his death, as in his life, he would keep teaching me.