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  • Writer's pictureJackie Wiermaa

My "Lucky" Patient

We are not supposed to have favorites amongst our children, clients, patients, etc. But, often we do because we are human. Jessica (name changed) was my favorite patient for the first thirteen years of my pediatric oncology career. She was one of my very first patients when I was fresh out of fellowship training. I met her when she was a teenager and we had thirteen wonderful years together, full of ups and downs. I consider her like my own child - we were very close.

Jessica had a recurrence of her primary cancer eight times during those thirteen years as her oncologist. We experienced tears of joy over remissions and tears of sorrow over relapses. After all those years I knew so much about her life, her dreams and hopes, her family and friends.

Jessica was always sweet and bubbly. She was naturally optimistic. She was artistic and beautiful. She lit up a room. So full of life! Somehow I assumed she would always survive yet another relapse and come out smiling. This was virtually impossible, but imagining anything other scenario was too painful to bear. She would be the one in a million who survives these odds, a miracle, I just knew it. She had to be, I couldn’t bear it otherwise.

During one of her relapses a combination of medications caused a psychosis (change in personality) to occur. At first I didn’t realize what was happening, but as I kept answering bizarre pages from the hospital operator from her at strange times of the day and night, and seeing bizarre behavior I put two and two together. Jessica was temporarily a different person due to the medical interactions and required inpatient psychiatric hospitalization until the medical issue could be sorted out. I was so relieved when sweet Jessica was back and her personality was restored. Whew, that was a difficult time, especially for everyone who cared about her. It was difficult for me, and this was unnerving because I couldn’t imagine going to work and Jessica not being a part of the usual routine. Afterwards, she didn’t have memories of this time in her life because of the medication effects. She just carried on as if nothing had happened.

We shared conversations during all her oncology visits about her current friendships, boyfriends and family struggles. All of those conversations were precious because of her bubbly personality and our close doctor-patient bond. It was such a joy to watch this teenager grow up to become a young women and get engaged to marry the love of her life.

But, this marriage ceremony did not occur because Jessica died from her cancer when she was at the prime of her life. The eighth relapse would be her final one. The thought I had refused to entertain was now a reality.

I somehow thought that she would always pull through, just like she had done the last seven times. I was numb. The loss was devastating for everyone. It was devastating to me. My conversation with God was not pretty on the way to the funeral. I told God that I did not want to be a pediatric oncologist anymore. It was just too much to bear. I was mad. I was done.

Friend after friend, family member after family member got up and spoke about Jessica and they all reported the same things I had known about her- her bubbly personality, how she lit up the room. Everyone loved her. I knew all this, I had experienced this myself. However, they all also knew about her nickname and referred to it often. I was the only person who did not know it.

I did not recall every hearing her nickname in all those years of conversation. That was impossible! Apparently, her nickname was “Lucky.” She wanted everyone to call her “Lucky” because she felt so lucky to have survived so many relapses. She told everyone that most people died after one relapse, but she was so “lucky to have survived so many times”

I should have heard her nickname hundreds of times in those years. I should have at least heard it once. Why was I hearing it for the first time at the funeral?

Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. I did not abandon my career in pediatric oncology at that point. It was not yet my time. Learning her nickname was “Lucky” for the first time at her funeral was profound. If I had heard it anytime in the thirteen years prior, it would have been familiar and would have had less impact.

As silly as it sounds, I felt the Lord comforting me deeply as I learned her nickname at the funeral. Jessica felt lucky to have survived so many relapses and this flooded my heart and soul with God’s peace. I felt the strength to endure, knowing her time to rest had come after a life filled with love and laughter in which she felt lucky every day to be alive. She was in the Lord’s loving care now and I was in awe of our creator who cares for the smallest details of our lives and comforts us in a way only he can orchestrate.

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