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Doctor, Patient Explore Friendship, Spirituality

CancerWise -

By Nada El-Sayed

It was at the funeral of Deborah Rose Sills that her friends and family, including Lois Ramondetta, M.D., commemorated her passing. It was at a party afterward that they celebrated her life.

Alongside Sills’ husband and two children was Ramondetta, who had been there from the beginning of SilIs’ cancer journey. Throughout it, the women developed a loving friendship beyond any conventional doctor-patient relationship.

During the eight years they shared, the women traveled the world, spoke about ovarian cancer and spirituality, wrote numerous articles in medical journals together and documented it all in their book, “The Light Within.” The book was published by William Morrow-division of Harper Collins in May 2008.

Two women embark on a journey of friendship

In December 1998, Ramondetta, then a fellow in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Gynecologic Oncology, was 15 hours into her shift. Sleeping in a cramped hospital call room, she was awakened by the continuous buzz of her pager.

She called the nurses’ station and learned she was awakened because a patient was refusing to drink her GoLYTELY, a laxative used to clean out the bowel before abdominal surgery.

Ramondetta entered the patient’s room, arms crossed, and Sills stood with her hands on her hips. Both women prepared to battle the other.

In their book, Ramondetta writes of that first encounter:

“So,” I said, looking into her lively, defiant eyes. “I hear you won’t drink your laxative.”
“That’s right,” she replied, not blinking.
“That’s going to be a problem,” I said. “If you don’t drink your GoLYTELY, there’s not going to be any surgery.”

Sills also writes about the meeting:

I made no distinctions among fellows, attending physicians, and physician chairpersons, but this one whoever she was and wherever she fit into the hierarchy — was clearly very tough. Still, in retrospect, that first encounter was a win for both of us.

After Sills’ surgery and the previous night’s standoff, Ramondetta began visiting Sills every morning after making her daily rounds.

She writes about how they got to know each other:

Once we got the medical questions out of the way, the real conversations would begin, and I knew almost immediately that this was a woman I wanted to get to know.

Paris, Istanbul and everything in between

As time passed, Sills continued her treatment at M. D. Anderson. She and Ramondetta, a member of her medical team, began to spend time together outside of the hospital. Their friendship developed further, and they shared more of their lives with each other.

Sills was a professor of religion at California Lutheran University. Ramondetta, now an attending physician and associate professor, had spent her undergraduate years at Emory University studying religion along with biology. They shared their interest in spirituality by researching the topic, with the goal of writing a book together.

The two traveled to Paris and Istanbul to work on their book. They lectured about cancer and spirituality at numerous conferences and spent time together at Sills’ home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Ramondetta’s home in Houston.

Their mutual love and respect for each other enriched their lives.

Sills writes in their book:

Dr. Lois and I have traveled to Paris together, spoken at international ovarian conferences together, and adventured in Istanbul with my husband and her fiancé. I would not have met her apart from ovarian cancer and, strange to say, my life is better for her friendship.

The art of dying: Death happens to us all

After deciding to stop treatment, Sills lived her final days surrounded by her family and friends. Ramondetta was six months pregnant when she made the drive to Santa Barbara to see Sills.

Sills died May 1, 2006, to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem. She was 56 years old.

Ramondetta spent Sills’ last few days by her side. She reminisced with Sills’ family about the times the women shared.

She writes:

I shared my love for Deb with her family. I was there for five days, and told them stories about some of the things we’d shared. The Lion King. Carmen. The Eiffel Tower. The warm marble slabs at that spa in Turkey. The memorable meals. The many, many shopping expeditions.

Attended by hundreds of people, the funeral included stories highlighting Sills’ life and her eccentric, brilliant and charismatic personality.

During the stories, Ramondetta was reminded of a moment during their trip in Paris when a stranger commented to SilIIs: “I have been watching you, and I must say there’s a powerful light coming from inside of you!”

Ramondetta remembered that encounter again when her second daughter, Lela Rose Nun, was born.

She writes about her child:

Sometimes, when she looks at me, I can see Deb in her eyes — I can see the same light shining inside her.

M. D. Anderson resources:

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© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center