Memoirs from a Pediatric Oncologist

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Updated: May 31


Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US. Approximately 23% of Americans die from heart disease each year. This is not new information and we diligently modify our diet, exercise and engage in various lifestyle practices to guard our heart health. However, the most important cause of heart disease is rarely discussed by health experts today.


Did you know that Dr. Armour discovered in 1991 that the heart has a brain with over 40,000 neurons- an intrinsic nervous system completely independent from the brain. The field of neurocardiology was recently developed due to the research by John and Beatrice Lacey in the 1960-1970’s, Dr. Armour, Doc Childre and many other researchers in the field of HeartMath (https://www.heartmath.com).


The heart sends messages to instruct the brain 80% of the time, while the brain only sends messages to instruct the heart 20% of the time. There is a dynamic two way dialogue between the heart and brain, and the brain seems to understand and obey messages from the heart. Four mechanisms of this instruction has been described as follows: a) neurologically through the Vagus Nerve b) biophysically through pressure gradients c) biochemistry /hormonal through atrial peptide and d) energetically through electromagnetic energy.


The most powerful source of electromagnetic energy in the body is the heart. In fact, the electromagnetic energy from the heart is one hundred times more powerful than the electromagnetic energy from the brain. This electromagnetic energy from the heart projects up to three feet, thus significantly affecting those around us. In fact, couples in stable long term relationships synchronize their heart rhythms and electromagnetic heart fields while sleeping next to each other at night. We are all familiar with the story of someone dying of a broken heart when separated from a lifelong partner. We are centered and connected in life by our heart.


The heart sends communication to the thalamus in the brain by the four mechanisms described above and this globally synchronizes cortical brain activity. The heart thus influences frontal-cortical activity which affects our thoughts and motivations, motor activity, attention, perception of pain, suffering and emotions. When our heart is at peace, it produces a hormone called atrial peptide which modulates our immune system, decreases stress hormones and decreases sympathetic activity, which is the fight or flight mode.


Now we can understand why humans so commonly use phrases such as “memorize it by heart” and “speak from the heart” and “put your heart into it” and “let’s have a heart to heart talk” or I have a “broken heart.” We could easily come up with dozens and dozens of similar phrases involving the heart.


The Bible speaks of the heart over 900 times and warns to “ Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” NKJV The bible was advanced several thousand years ahead of its time in its knowledge of the nature of mankind- this is very, very interesting!


Here are two stories from Paul Pearsall’s book, The Heart Code: tapping the wisdom and power of our heart energy, New York; Broadway Books, 1999.


A eight-year-old girl had nightmares about being killed after being given the heart of a child who had been murdered. Several years ago, an eight-year-old girl received the heart of a ten-year-old girl who was murdered. Shortly after receiving her new heart, the girl began having recurring nightmares about the man who had murdered her donor. She believed she knew who the murderer was. Her mother finally brought her to a psychiatrist and after several sessions, the girl’s psychiatrist “could not deny the reality of what the child was telling her.” They decided to call the police and, using the descriptions from the little girl, they found the murderer. According to the psychiatrist, “the time, the weapon, the place, the clothes he wore, what the little girl he killed had said to him. . ..everything the little heart transplant recipient reported was completely accurate”


Among the strangest case Paul Pearsall encountered was that of two men who shared the same heart.


Jim (original names withheld), who was dying of bad lungs, received a heart and lung transplant from a young woman who had just died. Since Jim’s old heart was still robust, it was transplanted into another man named Fred. After this domino transplant, Fred who was formerly laid-back began exhibiting the Type A aggressive behavior of Jim. During intimate moments, Fred would call his wife "Sandy", much to the consternation of his wife Karen. Jim’s wife’s name was Sandra. On the other hand, Jim became morose and sullen after the transplant and died a few years later. It was discovered that Jim’s donor had been a shy, soft-spoken young woman who had worked part-time in a flower shop, and had committed suicide in despair over a lost love.


I personally have experience with the profound effect of the heart. I suffered for years with migraines. Despite ongoing traditional allopathic western medicine treatments such as medications, infusions and lab investigations I received no relief and in fact worsened to the point of daily migraines, despite taking five different migraine medications. I explored many alternative wholistic healing modalities as well, yet no lasting relief occurred despite being diligent with dietary changes, supplements, removing amalgams, detoxification, etc. This pattern continued for over two decades of my life and I despaired and wondered if relief would ever come.


A well researched book called “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van Der Kolk explains that a broken heart and trauma will be expressed as symptoms in the body until that trauma and broken heart is healed. Now, I no longer have chronic daily migraines and I take zero medications for either prevention or treatment. In fact, I cannot remember the date of my last migraine as it was quite awhile ago. I don’t take anything special to maintain this- no medications, dietary changes or supplements are needed. The key to the resolution of my chronic daily migraines was understanding the role the heart had in this symptom. Now that I am healed of trauma and spiritually at peace, I no longer have a broken heart and my migraines symptoms have resolved.


We are wonderful creations that are complex in the relationship of our mind, body and spirit. At the center of it all is the heart, as the Bible wisely proclaimed repeatedly over thousands of years ago. So, if you want a healthy heart and longevity, search the scriptures for its wisdom regarding the heart. You will find over 900 verses regarding this topic! If you have a broken heart that results in relentless symptoms that never seem to heal after years of searching and trying one treatment after another, consider what Jesus says in John 14:27 “ Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” NKJV.


Please, don’t give up because Proverbs 17:22 says “ A merry heart does good, like medicine…” My sincere belief is that if your heart is at peace and merry then your body will also thrive and heal. I send you blessings, dear friends and readers, and urge you to take care of your heart - first and foremost and above all else!


  • Jackie Wiermaa



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.






If we are honest as mothers, we admit we sometimes feel like a failure. We envision ourselves as a wonderful mother, yet our present reality does not seem to measure up. Our hopes and dreams are shattered at these low points. We even wonder if our children will have any chance to live a “normal” life given all of our perceived shortcomings.


We have all been there- probably many times. This true story (although the names have been changed) will encourage you to keep on fighting the good fight and running the race of motherhood.


I met Sam when he was just 18 months old. He was previously an orphan in a country that was devastated by various tragedies at the time. There was also nuclear contamination of the environment due to a spill. He was adopted at about 12 months of age by a wonderful family.


Unfortunately, the day I met this beautiful child and his family I had to deliver the bad news that their precious son had liver cancer, most likely from the nuclear spill in his country of origin. I spent the next year and a half falling i

n love with this little angel as he underwent chemotherapy and eventually a liver transplant from his adopted mother. Despite her heroic sacrifice of a lobe of her liver, little Sam died at three years of age of metastatic cancer.


I remember visiting him in his home when he was on hospice. I will never forget him standing and looking out the window, playing with his favorite Thomas trains on the window ledge. Despite his pain and suffering he was doing what children do- playing and using his imagination. He died peacefully the next day at home.


I felt like a failure. I had wanted to help this child who had such a rough start in life but then had a chance to start over with his new loving family. It seemed so unfair, my heart was breaking. What was the point of my career anyway?


I made a practice of attending the funerals of all my patients that had died during my twenty year oncology career. It was necessary for me to make peace with each child, family and heartache I had just experienced in order to preserve my sanity and maintain empathy. In the preparation for Sam’s funeral I learned some new information that transformed how I felt about the situation.


A picture is worth a thousand words. In the process of spending time with the family while preparing pictures for Sam’s memorial, I saw a photo of Sam at age 12 months, just prior to his adoption. He was the weight of a newborn, just a little over 7 pounds despite being 12 months of age. He had an empty look in his eyes, like no one was home. He could not even babble one syllable, could not roll over or sit up or even smile. It was horrifying. I asked the family how this situation was allowed to occur. They explained that the orphanage was well equipped with food and clothing and was very sanitary. The children were fed adequate amounts of nutritious food. The issue was there were so few caregivers and nurses for hundreds of orphan babies, that each child received no individual attention besides the necessary diaper changes and baths. They spent each day alone in their crib. Little Sam was wasting away, emaciated and near death because he was not given individual attention and love. He was not the center of someone’s world and did not have his own family. Since he was not loved by anyone, he was dying.


I couldn’t believe it was the same child in the before and after photos. After his adoption, within a matter of weeks, Sam began gaining weight and soon had chubby cheeks. He was learning to walk, talk, play, sing and smile. This was the Sam I knew and was familiar with. I realized that even at the worst times in his cancer treatment, he still had a twinkle in his eye and laughter in his voice because he knew he was loved. Sam was wanted and was part of a family. Sam belonged. This made all the difference.


His mother showed me a photo taken a couple months after his adoption, where he was thriving and said lovingly “ he looks like such a cherub in this picture.” This moment is forever etched in my memory because her voice sounded so proud , so loving, so happy to be his mother. He had such a beautiful face, with rosy and chubby cheeks and he truly looked like an angel on earth. You could tell that he knew he was loved.


This child had a profound effect on me. Cancer and dying early did not seem like the worst tragedy anymore. Rather, the tragedy was that he almost died of a broken heart, alone and unloved, at age twelve months.


So, take heart all you Mom’s who feel inadequate at times, like I do. When we look at our children with love overflowing, knowing there is nothing we wouldn’t do for them- we are meeting their deepest need. They may even roll their eyes when you try to hug them. They may get exacerbated when you tell them for the hundredth time that you love them. Our love for them is obvious- it is old hat for them by now. We are giving our children the ultimate gift - a family and a sense of belonging. Our children are important to us, are accepted, and are loved. They understand this. This gift far outweighs all of our imperfections and is really what our children need the most. It is easy to forget this and get overwhelmed with the details.


Our love will carry our children over the finish line.