A few years ago, I was unlucky enough to be diagnosed with cancer, and lucky enough to be treated for it by the wonderful folks at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
My treatment did not go smoothly. Side effects erupted almost at once. I won’t bore you with the details, but the upshot was a call from the nurse practitioner who managed my case. My levels of certain crucial white blood cells had plunged precipitously, she told me. In fact, they were undetectable. I would be admitted to the hospital on an emergency basis.
And so I spent much of that holiday season in the hospital. The care I received there was exemplary. The cleaners, the aides, the doctors, the nurses — everyone seemed to know exactly why they were there, and it was to make me better.
The steady drip of antibiotics
One of my nurses was Kim. She was the one I turned to after a few days when it did not seem to me I was getting any better, despite the steady drip of powerful antibiotics. Kim explained that one of the chemo drugs I was taking had unexpectedly damaged my bone marrow. Until it recovered, I needed the antibiotics to ward off infection. Though I might not feel it, I was recovering, she said. The twice-daily blood draws confirmed it.
Kim looked down at me, bald, pale and flat on my back. “I promise you,” she said. “You will get better.” And I believed her healing words.
Kim looked down at me, bald, pale and flat on my back. ‘I promise you,’ she said. ‘You will get better.’
So when Kim came in a few days later to say she needed a favor, of course I said, “of course!” In a couple of days, Kim said, Hanukkah would begin, and she had brought a menorah for the nurses’ station. But Kim was an Orthodox Jew, and she would have to be home well before sunset on the first day of the holiday. In fact, she was taking the day off. Would I make sure the menorah was lit? I assured her that I would, though I wondered how I could, tethered as I was to my IVs.
Tethered to IVs, she asks doctor if he’s Jewish
That first day of Hanukkah began for me with the usual bunch of doctors and medical students gathered at the foot of the bed. One of them introduced himself, and I paid attention to his name. After said a few things about my progress, he asked if I had any questions.
I had one, I told him: “Is it safe to assume that you are Jewish?” The doctor took a step backward. This question was not one he had anticipated. “Why, yes,” he said. “In that case,” I said, “I have a favor to ask of you. I have been delegated to make sure the menorah at the nurses’ station is lit for Hanukkah and I cannot get out of this bed. Will you take care of it?”
And he said he would — and he did.
For all I know, Kim recruited more than one of her patients for the menorah-lighting effort. But I prefer to think I was the one who made it happen.
Given my diagnosis, my debilitated state and my distance from loved ones, that should have been my worst Christmas ever. But it was one of the best.
That should have been my worst Christmas ever. But it was one of the best.
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Cornelia Dean is a science writer and former Science Editor of The New York Times, and a lecturer at Brown University, where she teaches seminars on the public’s understanding of science. Her new book is “Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance From Spin" (Harvard, 2017).