Page 8 - Volume 69 Number 1
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Cancer, Injury, Pain and Family: A Personal Journey to Perspective,
Wisdom and Empathy
By Rosalie Tocco-Bradley, PhD, MD
The day I received the call informing me that my husband had sustained a cervical spinal cord injury during his team’s play-off game in a local men’s hockey league was the same day I sat with my younger sister as the oncologist told her that years of treatment had failed to stop her breast cancer. It had widely metastasized, and she would likely not survive the year. Ten days later, with her
only son lying in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit at the University of Michigan with no other family members present, I would hold my elderly, frightened mother- in-law in my arms as she died. As for me, my hair
had just grown back following my own dance with chemotherapy for breast cancer.
That year, 2010, changed me for better and for worse. Better: I believe I became a more aware and empathetic physician. Worse: Losing my sister Maria was heartbreaking beyond consolation, not just to me, but also to the devoted husband and the 11- and 16-year old children she left behind. Better: My husband, Brian, and I learned to navigate through his rehabilitation as well as the emotional challenges associated with a life-changing injury. Worse: My mother-in-law died without seeing her beloved son one last time. Better: I’m still here, although I can assure you, there is survivor guilt when your little sister is the one who dies first.
Although I would never wish pain and suffering on a physician colleague, I can tell you that hardship has provided me with perspective, empathy, and wisdom beyond anything I gained in medical school or on grand rounds. In 2008, in the calm before the storm, I thought I was a pretty good doctor. I loved what I did, I worked at
keeping current with advances in anesthesiology, and I felt I was able to connect well with my patients. But after my year of heartache, I realized I really hadn’t known what personal anguish a patient experiences, or for that matter, the stress that family members undergo when their loved ones are ill or dying.
Let me step back and provide a little perspective on my road to medicine. According to family and tradition,
I wasn’t supposed to become a doctor. As the eldest daughter in a highly traditional Sicilian family, I was expected to marry young – and to marry Sicilian. I’m not kidding. How many of your parents were disappointed that you chose a career in medicine over a career as a housewife? Thankfully, they got over their disappointment and even came to respect my decision. It soon became clear that, as the only physician in a family of eight siblings, I had the responsibility of caring not only for my patients but also for my family. This, then, was the point of departure for my professional and personal journeys.
Pain and suffering, even that experienced by loved ones, wears you down. Before we learned of my sister’s diagnosis, I was happily immersed in a satisfying career as a clinical anesthesiologist and department chair. Then came the news that Maria, at the time only 40 years old, had triple-negative breast cancer. My controlled world turned into one of emotional upheaval driven by my care and concern for her well-being. Throughout her years of seeking treatments that could stem her disease, she and her family had intermittently lived at our home with my husband and three sons. At one point, Maria participated in a clinical trial that was administered through a cancer center near our home. Although I loved having Maria close, I felt her anxiety and witnessed her struggle each
8 Washtenaw County Medical Society BULLETIN JANUARY / FEBRUARY / MARCH 2017

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