An Open Letter to the Doctor Who Saw Cancer When We Thought It Was A Cold

Dear Dr. Dina Sukharev of Palo Alto Medical Foundation,

You probably don’t know who I am, because you never met me in person. You saw my husband in April as a first-time patient on Wednesday, April 20. My otherwise strong, athletic husband had this cold he couldn’t over since Thanksgiving. Every night for months he would cough himself to sleep, and in the morning, he would drag himself to work, and then in the evening, he would muster the energy to play with his 3-year-old daughter Georgie and watch some TV before coughing himself to sleep again.

It was just a cold. And the rash on his leg was just eczema, so stop scratching it OK? The lumps on his throat were just swollen glands, you know, from the cold.

But we thought maybe it was time for some antibiotics to punch this super-virus in the pants. Maybe a Z-pack and some codeine cough syrup. So he called around looking for a primary care physician looking for new patients, and found you. At first your receptionist said your office didn’t have an available appointment until June, but then she found this opening the following week in April, the day after my 29th birthday.

I spent the afternoon shopping for baby supplies with my Georgie and my mom. We talked about plans for the new baby, possible names, and preschool options for Georgie. At one point, I mentioned that Josiah had a doctor’s appointment for a cold that wouldn’t go away. I guess I hadn’t mentioned the cold that wouldn’t go away to my parents yet. My mom’s concern surprised and almost annoyed me. But we both agreed that it was good he was getting checked out.

You took one look at my husband and ordered a chest X-ray and a CT scan. You didn’t say why, but you did express concern over the lumps in his neck. You mentioned he could have something like Tuberculosis, or this weird virus that came from the Central Valley. You didn’t use the word cancer, but I think you knew already. I think the things you did mention were to prepare us for a more serious diagnosis than a cold.

I’ll never be able to thank you enough for your keen eye, your thoroughness and your care for a patient you’d never seen before. Since we’ve been in the world of cancer, I’ve heard stories from lymphoma survivors who went to see their doctor for similar symptoms and were told they had mono, or allergies, or heartburn, or too much stress. One sweet man I know went to his doctor for chest pain and was sent home from that appointment with no ordered exams or follow-ups. His instructions were to take Tums and destress at home–so he did, and his tumors grew for four more months until his chest pain was so severe he dragged himself to a different doctor for a second opinion. That second opinion was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Stage IV.

You called me at 7 p.m. on a Friday to go over initial test results with me. You were calm and understanding; I was hysterical and upset you hadn’t called earlier. Looking back, there was nothing you could have done to appease me. I jotted down notes as you spoke. Words like mediastinal mass. I had done some research on the Internet, something I know doctors love to hear, so I asked you if it could possibly be something other than cancer. I had a list of things I had hoped it would be instead, according to WebMD. You said no. It was probably none of those things. You asked me if I had a good support system. I said yes.

In the process of obtaining the precise, official diagnosis, we were handed away to specialists and my husband didn’t see you again. We met with many doctors with varying opinions on what was going on with the cells in my husband’s chest. One seemed to think a little much of himself. He questioned your ability to accurately diagnose cancer because you went to medical school in Russia. He said this with a little snicker, as if we all agreed that Russian medical schools are always inferior to US schools. I want you to know that I looked at this doctor and politely told him I don’t care where the hell you went to medical school, because you found cancer on my husband when we thought he had a cold.

We’ll never know what might have happened if you waived off my husband’s symptoms at that first appointment. If you felt rushed with patients waiting in the lobby, patients with strep throat and sinus infections, and just phoned in the antibiotics he asked for. If you told him to get some rest and come back in a month. At the rate his tumors were growing, I’ll guess it probably wouldn’t have been positive. We’ve since been in amazing hands with expert oncologists and we’ve got six weeks of chemo left (hooray!), and we are grateful for every doctor and nurse who has served in a part of his healing. But we’ll never forget that it all started with you.

Thank you.

First Chemo Session Down

Josiah and I are lounging in our backyard, dogs on our laps. It’s a such a nice day it would sound flowery and cliche if I tried to describe it: dappled sun peeking through trees, birds chirping, a slight breeze on our faces. I’ll spare you.

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