For My Patients, Who Have Each Made Me A Better Person
Kyle Holen, MD, is an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and a medical oncologist at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. He shares his reflections on caring for a cancer patient that touched his life forever.
I was walking home from the hospital one night during the first year of my practice at UW Hospital and Clinics. The week had been much busier than I had expected; there were many work and personal issues that were all coming to a head. But this walk home was a bit different.
It was different not because it was late at night. It was not because I was feeling stressed about my life and the number of things that seemed out of my control. No, it was different because I had recently heard news that one of my first patients, a young man with metastatic colon cancer, had just passed away.
He had everything going for him in his life. He was young. He had a beautiful family. He loved animals and worked as a veterinarian. He and his wife had adopted many rescued animals and were considering further adoptions until he was diagnosed with cancer.
His was a life unfulfilled. He had many things he had still wanted to do, trying his best to do some of these things in the shortened time he had left. Towards the end, his life became very difficult. His bowels had stopped working such that he relied on IV fluids to keep him alive. His pain was quite difficult to control. And like many people in this situation, he didn't complain. He took things as they came. It could be worse, he had said.
Of course, I had heard and experienced many of these stories before. Many patients with these stories had been my patients as a student, a resident, or a fellow. But this patient was one of my first as a new faculty member, and it felt different.
Ultimately I was the last one that he turned to when he asked me to try and save his life. Near the end, I had a very hard time looking him in the eye because although I knew that I could help him feel better, there was nothing I could do to stave off the ultimate effect of his cancer. And now I had no supervising physician to take over his care when things became so difficult.
I took a deep breath. The air was cool and fresh that night. The moon was hidden behind a light cloud cover. Perhaps it would rain by morning? I was getting cold and therefore I picked up the pace. And it was as I was nearing home that I started to realize what this experience with my patient meant to me. It taught me that I had the ability to walk, and I felt thankful for this. I had the ability to eat a meal, and I felt thankful for this. I was without pain, and I felt thankful for this.
I stopped walking. I looked around. And the world at that very moment seemed to me a very beautiful and amazing place. And I felt thankful. Thank you, Allen. I will never forget you.
About Kyle Holen, MD
Kyle Holen, MD, is an associate professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin and a medical oncologist at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. In the last year, he has also accepted the role of program director for the fellowship in medical oncology. His areas of research interest include gastrointestinal tumors (leading the Phase II Consortium GI track) and neuroendocine cancers (member of the NIH Task Force on Neuroendocrine Tumors). He is currently the principal investigator on a number of Phase I and II, local and national clinical trials.