May 1, 2018

Life lessons learned from child cancer patients:

When I was training to be a pediatrician,  one of the rotations that we had to do was the Hematology/Oncology ward. I remember this as one of my most difficult rotations for many reasons. The science of the illnesses is complex and the emotional aspect is overwhelming. It is on this rotation that I learned many life lessons that I still carry with me today. I remember one day specifically that stayed with me.

The most vivid memory I have was one day that I was in the playroom with the kids. The Child Life Specialist was entertaining them. The child life team is special to say the least. They dedicate their lives to helping kids have fun while they’re in the hospital and they more importantly, help kids understand what will be done to them and what to expect. As always, with knowledge, comes decreased anxiety and the child life team are experts on this! They hold their hands and walk them through every step of the way. They are healers and a very important part of the medical team, especially in the hematology/oncology ward.

This particular day, the kids were seated at a table and had paper, scissors, markers and crayons. The activity of the day was to write down 3 wishes and make a picture showing those wishes. I remember imagining in my head what my 3 wishes would be. My 27 year old self had big dreams. I would become a doctor, I would get married, have children, travel the world! My thoughts wandered into that cloud of uncertainty and hope and I was for a few minutes lost in thought. Then the sound of the kids talking to each other brought me back to the small room at the end of the hall on the Hematology/Oncology floor. The kids were discussing their wishes and I sat there listening.

One little boy wrote:

1) To play outside

2) To not be sick

3) A new bike

Another little girl wrote:

1) To be like other kids

2) To play outside

3) To be home

As I read the wishes, I remember feeling a sense of shame. Shame that my thoughts were so grand. Shame that during this difficult time for these kids I was selfishly thinking of all of these amazing things I hoped that I would have some day. I didn’t realize it then but that day those kids taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.

Do not take anything for granted. Appreciate your health and that of your loved ones because it is EVERYTHING. Play outside, go for a walk, walk on the sand, feel the grass on your feet, stop to listen when someone talks…really listen, enjoy the little things.

I went on to become a doctor, I got married to a wonderful man and have 3 beautiful children. I often remember that day in the playroom. I often think of those wishes and when I feel sad, mad or overwhelmed I think of them.

Those kids knew more that I did what truly mattered in life. I am thankful for the gift of their wisdom and hope they are playing outside and “not sick” today.

-Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.

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