I got a call yesterday. It's not the kind of call most people get; it was a call from someone who is dying and wanted to talk with me.
"How are you doing?" I asked, not knowing exactly what to ask.
"Pretty lousy. They say my cancer is spreading and the oncologist told me there wasn't much more to do at this point."
There were a few seconds of silence, and I was about to say something when the patient said, with voice cracking, "I just want to thank you for all you've done for me over the years. You've been a good doctor - someone I can talk to when I needed. Thank you for all you've done."
"Thank you for letting me take care of you," I answered, "It really is an honor when people trust me with their care."
"Just let me know if I can help in any way" I said, again not knowing what to say. "I assume they've set you up with hospice. You are facing that time that we all will face some day. It's just got to be weird when it's actually happening to you."
"Yeah, doc," the patient said. "It's not something normal, that's for sure."
I thought about that conversation for the rest of the day. Someone had felt strongly enough to call me and thank be before they died. I was a person on their list that they wanted to contact before death. That's amazing. It may not be the first time this has happened, but it was the first time I was acutely aware of its significance.
We talked for a while after the things I chronicled above, talking about family, plans for wrapping things up, about whether quitting smoking had brought on the cancer (I didn't debate the point), and about our shared experiences in my office. It was hard to say goodbye, as it could easily be my last conversation with the person.
This all got me thinking about a conversation I heard on sports radio about the definition of the word "heroic." One of the hosts was complaining about the use of the word "hero" in conjunction with the amazing efforts of Maddison Bumgarner in the world series. Yes, it was amazing how he pitched 5 scoreless innings on two days rest, but would you truly call his efforts heroic? "Shouldn't we reserve the term for people who are true heroes," the host asked, "like soldiers, firefighters, and doctors? This guy pitched in a game; he didn't save anyone's life or find a cure for cancer. It just bugs me when people call this heroic"
The reference that caught me was his assumption that doctors were heroes. This is something that has been said to me before, after I discovered heart disease, found cancer early, or helped a person gain control of their difficult disease. I can't deny it: I have saved many people's lives, but I resist any suggestion that what I do is heroic.
It is my job to find cancer early, diagnose heart disease, and put people on the path to health. I am supposed to save people's lives. I would consider myself a poor doctor if I didn't do these things, just as a firefighter or soldier would deflect the title of "hero" for their doing their job as they should. Are there truly nobler jobs than others? If so, does having a noble job confer its nobility to the people who do it? I must say, I've known many doctors where the terms "hero" and "noble" would be far down on the list. Yet these people also save lives and help the helpless for a living.
I think there is something in us that makes us want to make heroes. This is part of the attraction of sport and other entertainment. We want to see people doing things that are amazing, superhuman, and heroic. As a child, I imagined me hitting the home run in the bottom of the 9th inning, or hitting the basket with no time left on the clock. I imagined the adulation and praise of my skill from the adoring masses. I dreamed of being a hero.
But then, is the fact that Bumgarner plays a game and doesn't save lives make his superhuman effort less heroic? I tend to think this is an unnecessary distinction. It is the effort that is heroic, not the outcome. It is the person being in the place that matters, when nobody else is able to do the task. It is when we are truly ourselves when we are the only people who can make a difference.
So, in some ways, the fact that this person wanted to call me before they died, that fact makes me feel heroic. This is not the heroism that attracts outside praise from the masses (I say ironically as I publish this on my blog). Really, I am not writing this to garner praise, but to say that we all can and should be heroes. Being heroic is to be who we are in the position we've been given. It isn't sexy, loud, or earth-shaking.
Being truly heroic is something solid, which comes from ourselves, not from the opinions of others. In a strange way, this patient, by calling me and letting me know how much I've done, did something heroic for me.
Thank you for being my hero.