This is me. On paper. In black and white. Defined by numbers. Like 1.1 (size of my breast cancer tumor in centimeters), 1 (stage of my disease), 4 (number of lymph nodes removed), 12 (number of Herception infusions I received), 93 (percentage that predicted my survival for 5 years). The numbers go on and on.
There were enough numbers to cover the floor and tables of the space where I spoke this morning to two small groups of Univesity of Florida medical school applicants. The purpose of my talk was to bring to life my numbers, to demonstrate that for each digit strewn across the place, there is a story. Like 18, which represents the months I spent in counseling trying to wrangle the tears that continually poured from my eyes and anxieties about living to see my baby boys grow up. And 2, which is the sum of my individual hospital stays that lasted for 10 total days. I talked about the first low blood counts (700) that landed me on the bone marrow floor (because the oncology floor was full) and earned me a blood transfusion, the second low blood counts (1200) that recovered much more quickly and without donor assistance, and the 4 infusions of chemotherapy that robbed me of my hair but gave me 10 extra pounds.
I also shared some happy stories. Like how my blog reaches 80-plus countries, how my wig has traveled across the United States 4 times so that other women could benefit from the comfort it gave me, how I now have a 0 chance of recurrence because my cancer only returns in the first 5 years, and how I will have survived for 10 years in November. I was 34 when I was diagnosed. Now, I am 44. My kids, then 3 and 18 months old, are now 13 and 11.
I do love numbers. They fascinate me. But they do not reveal sadness, suffering, pain, hope, joy, relief. Patients are so much more than the numbers that fill their charts, and my message to today’s applicants was this: Find a way to personally connect with those you will treat. The connection does not need to be long or lasting; it just must be meaningful.
If these applicants attend the University of Florida for medical school, they would be wise to model the manner of Dr. Lynch (pictured right)—my warm and loving oncologist and friend—who continues to invite me to speak during interview days because he thinks it is critical for prospective students to learn about real-life medical journeys so that they can become compassionate patient-centered physicians. I think he is right.
After my chat, one applicant shook my hand and tenderly said, “I will definitely think about things differently now. Thank you.”
I need nothing more to confirm that my message matters.