“Doc, you know I’m an atheist, but I know you are a man of faith and I am going to ask you to pray for me.”
Atheists do not usually ask for prayer but this was a special circumstance. Being diagnosed with cancer causes people to reconsider beliefs they had previously rejected, to look for help in new places. Although my phone call to him delivering the biopsy results was not unexpected the diagnosis still hit him pretty hard. He had cancer and it was serious. He took only a moment to absorb the information before telling me he was not ready to die and he was afraid.
He had been battling a number of health issues for several months. First had come an unusual cancer of the skin and superficial tissue of his back, a cancer so rare that none of the doctors had seen it before. Shortly after the final surgery and radiation treatments for that cancer he developed an irregular heartbeat and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Blood thinners became a part of his life. He had always been strong and healthy and now he was on chronic medications. He was no longer invincible.
While he dealt with the stress of these diseases he began to battle another problem. He developed severe stomach upset that made it difficult for him to eat. Heartburn, indigestion and nausea became his daily companions. He lost 50 pounds. He saw a specialist, but the specialist was concerned about doing an endoscopy and biopsy while he was on the blood thinners so definitive testing was delayed. After several weeks of waiting he called me and asked for a new GI doctor. A few weeks later the new GI doctor called me to let me know that he had done an endoscopy and discovered a cancer in the stomach. That news led to my call to the patient and to his unexpected prayer request.
A few weeks later he scheduled an appointment with me to go over his options and ask my opinion. We discussed what we knew (which was too little for me to give him a decent prognosis) and we discussed several possible outcomes. Although the cancer is serious and life threatening he is determined to survive. He again asked me to pray for him. I told him that I had been praying and would continue to do so.
As often happens during life and death conversations the discussion drifted to other areas of his life. He talked being estranged from his son and how difficult that had been for him. He shared about a recent school reunion that was bittersweet, as the joy of renewing old friendships was tempered by the gravity of his diagnosis. He told me about his journey away from faith many years ago, how travels to Europe and Africa had included visits to concentration camps and areas of mass genocide. Faced with such evidence of evil he had rejected the idea of God's existence.
Time and circumstances made deeper conversation inappropriate but it seemed to me that there was much he wanted to discuss, many more issues of the heart he desired to explore. It seemed that my years of caring for him had resulted in me being someone he felt he could trust. I wrote down my cell phone number and handed it to him.
“Anytime you want to talk, I’ll buy the food or the coffee. Not as your doctor, but as your friend.”
He promised he would take me up on the offer. I pray I will be an encouragement to him if and when he calls.
When he left I was again reminded of how important it is to not only care for my patients but to care about them. Sometimes the greatest therapeutic tool available is our ears. We just need to listen.
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