Mrs. Shearer followed me from the outpatient waiting room into the small examining room, with its pastel pink walls and beige linoleum. Two chairs sat side by side against one wall, and a small black stool on wheels was tucked under the narrow examination table which was covered in thin paper on a roll, easy to rip off for quick transitions between patients. Clinic appointments were scheduled for every fifteen minutes.
“Will you stay?” Mrs. Shearer asked me. “I’m nervous about my results and I haven’t met this doctor before.”
I met Mrs. Shearer when she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years before. I was the nurse who administered her first chemotherapy, an act that often deeply bonds nurse and patient. She had been alone then too. Her husband died when her three children were in high school and she never remarried. She preferred not to bother her kids to come with her for the appointments to see her oncologist.
“Of course I’ll stay,” I said.
There was no introduction, no handshake, just a grave and impenetrable look on the doctor’s face when she entered the room. Her shiny, burgundy boots controlled the speed of the rolling stool as she inched towards Mrs. Shearer, flipping to the test results page of the chart.
Without lifting her head from the chart she said, “This is not good. The results show that the cancer has progressed in your liver.” She then raised her head and looked into Mrs. Shearer’s eyes briefly, before looking back down at the page. The palm of her right hand moved in slow circles over the test results. Perhaps the motion soothed her.
“We have come to the end of the road with chemotherapy, so I suggest you get your affairs in order. I’ll refer you back to your family doctor for palliative care. I'm sorry." She paused for a few moments and cocked her head slightly, as though listening as her words landed with a thud onto the cold, hard, institutional floor.
"Do you have any questions?” she asked.
“Thank you, doctor, no,” Mrs. Shearer said, with a wan smile.
The doctor rubbed the side of Mrs. Shearer’s knee with the back of her hand before she stood up. “Take care of yourself,” she said, and left the room.
I moved from the wall where I had been standing to the chair next to Mrs. Shearer and sat down. I wanted to be closer to her, to keep her company, after the click of the door, after the travesty of facts delivered, without empathy. Many patients thank their doctors after hearing devastating news, and have no questions. The shock seizes the mind and the questions can’t find their way out, until later, or perhaps death moves into the room and swallows up the questions.
The quiet wrapped us up together then, in a kind of faith that slips in when hope shatters, before sadness or anger surfaces, before the mind, or the feelings, have a chance to grab hold. A tiny space opened up for the truth of it. No one holds the future of anyone else’s life in the palm of their hand.