Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dual Identity

Hurricane Sandy spared us. We had high winds and rain for the better part of a day, but other than a neighbor's fence that was pleading to be put out of its misery, the damage here was non-existent. One casualty of the storm, however, has been the blog, but in the most roundabout of ways. 

After more than nearly 20 years of writing and editing in mostly a communal cube setting, I've been conditioned to writing in a certain environment. First off, I must have music. Rock, classical, jazz, anything. Second, I must have headphones. The combination of the two creates a little writing cocoon where I can tune out the world and tune in to the creative process. Sometimes I can simulate the headphone part if I'm home alone and can turn the speakers loud enough, but the number of times that I'm home alone in the past oh, 11 years, I could probably count on one hand. That means there are usually three times when I can simulate my ideal writing environment -- the train ride to work, the train ride from work, and evenings when the boys are in bed. 

Enter SuperStorm Sandy. With the boys home from school for two days and suspended train service, there's been no time to get in the right writing environment. Until today. 

So here I am with headphones in and iPad out thinking about a couple of chance encounters today.

I took a moment out of my day to drop off leftover halloween candy at our Patient and Family Services center. And while I was there, I refilled a couple prescriptions at the pharmacy on the second floor. Convenience is one of the benefits of being both a patient and employee. As I left, I checked my email and was hit by some sad news. A young patient who we've featured in a variety of communications efforts passed away yesterday morning. I don't know how old she was, but the picture that accompanied the email showed a young woman in her late teens or early twenties with a beautiful, vibrant smile. It's a sad and sobering reminder - even if there are more than 400 types of cancers, all with differing outcomes influenced by a host of factors. I sighed a deep breath and headed out the door on my way back to my office and was greeted by the sight of a line of three ambulances curbside. Waiting to transport patients somewhere? I have no idea. But side by side, the two encounters were a stark reminder of what cancer can be -- and of one of the principal drawbacks of being both a Dana-Farber patient and employee. Few other communications departments get the news of one of their "sources" dying. 

As I continue to work at Dana-Farber over the years, I'll constantly be reminded of the advances researchers are making and the setbacks clinicians are facing. It comes with the territory. 

So does the challenge of keeping my identities separate. Men often make lousy patients, as we know. I think that's because men like to think they're in charge while patients are by definition not in charge. We're  under the care of someone else -- or many others, a care team,  caregivers. Patients dont know all the answers; sometimes we don't even know the questions. We're not in control. Part of being a good patient, then, to me is accepting that you need to be cared for - in ways small and large. That's all well and good, but it's a mindset that runs counter to my Dana-Farber work identity - which, as a director of a team of 16, I hope is someone who is in control, someone who knows tHe answers, or certainly the questions.  It's hard to be subtle about my treatment even if I wanted to, as I disappear for four days every month and then come back to work with a nearly lost voice. Bu by being open about my current state (that is, that I'm in treatment), I risk blurring the line among my team and coworkers who see me as both Michael the patient and Michael the director -- or worse, who see me as only Michael the patient. I walk the fine line of having my patient experience inform my work without turning my input into a focus group of one. 

--Michael