M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
Date: Fall 2008
Duration: 0 / 06:02
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When I first met Deb I was a fellow, just starting at M. D. Anderson and she was actually Dr. Gershenson's patient. And she was one of those people who kind of just drew you in and it wasn't just me, she drew in everybody who met her and this was a rare and unique opportunity for me, and I hope that I get the opportunity to do this again with another patient. I certainly try on a regular basis, to get to know my patients and what gives meaning to their life, but sometimes the opportunities flourish and sometimes they don't and that's true for everyone you meet in your life, but the opportunities are huge.
Writing with Deb... what we did was continue conversations over the next few years and mostly by email, but also by phone, so it was kind of in the beginning of email for me; so we used to call each other when I was driving home and she was driving to work in California, it was a little earlier. And we started talking about one of my interests which was, what is spirituality and medicine and what defines that? And if I tried to explain to you what that interest is for me, it's more that doing this job over and over again, as you all know, is emotionally taxing and you have to find your own way of coping with it. And writing has been helping me, but also reflecting on what is spirituality and when I say that I mean more what gives meaning to someone's life, is what's been helping me to cope with what I do.
Somewhere along that time, we changed from patient - doctor to colleague to eventual friend, and I think that really happened for me when she invited me to join her in Paris for my thirty-something birthday, and really got to get to know her as a person and sharing a room with her was interesting and... after that it really became, I think I became the person who she could kind of reflect to me what was happening to her here.
When Deb was dying, I was actually at the SGO conference in Palm Springs in March of 2006 and I was supposed to go visit her in April, and when I talked to her we talked about finishing a book, we were near the end of it and this was really important to her too. And I talked to her and I said I'd be there in April and she said, I don't think I'm gonna be here in April. So I drove from Palm Springs and helped her and her family make the decision to stop treatment. She'd been getting antibiotics for pneumonia as a result of neutropenia, and the opportunity that I had to sit at her bedside while she talked to her family about this and to see how Abby how had matured over those eight years, was something that I'll never forget... and I think those opportunities are there all the time and we often just don't take them.
Anyway, I think the book was very important for me to write, it was very important for her to write, she was a religion professor who really lost a lot of her career advantages by dealing with cancer during the time that she should have been as productive as most people would be in their thirties and forties. And this was the only book that she wrote and it was very important for her to do it. In the book it does say "we did it" at the end because she knew we'd finished it.
We actually finished the book while she was at home on hospice by transcribing. She was on a lot of morphine and it was hard for her to type, so we taped her and it was beautiful because I'd gone out about three times during that time where her children were there and her husband was there, and we would just sit around and have tea - which is pretty much all she was having at that point - and she would just tell these stories. And then we would transcribe them and read them back to her. The other thing that she did during that time was she had her family read the book because there were areas that were a little sensitive to her children and her husband in how she was dealing with things, and wanted to make sure that they didn't have any issues.
After she died we got lucky and somebody in a branch of Harper Collins was interested and ended up being taken up by William Morrow, and the one thing that they had us change - well the order of things got changed - but really none of the text got changed. What got added was that they asked us to add conversations that Deb and I had and I didn't know how I was going to do that, and so they did it and they sucked. [ laughing ] And they were terrible, and when we read them we thought, I wouldn't say this and she wouldn't say this. So they actually flew an editor out to their house in Santa Barbara and we sat and it was another amazing experience, we did it on the year after she died, Giles had set up an annual lecture for her at... California Lutheran University where she taught, and we'd all flown out for that first annual lecture. And we sat around afterwards with some wine and cheese and we had the conversations, and Abby actually was... she's like my mom wouldn't say that, she would say this. And she would just come out and it was an emotionally tearful, happy, smiling, experience and added a lot and made us all grow closer and it was very nice because Giles and I hadn't worked at all together on the book, but afterwards he said, I just want you to know that I understand that you totally have her best interests at heart with what you're doing and we're very happy that this is gonna keep her alive.
The title of the book came from actually something that someone said to her when we were in Paris, talking about the book and writing in a little cafe near the Louvre. This woman was kind of observing our conversation and Deb and when she talked... one she wore kind of funky clothes and funky hats and laughed loud, and this woman kinda kept noticing us and then she stood up and kind of leaned over and she didn't speak English very well but she said, there's a light coming from you. And she said it directly to Deb and you got that kind of goose bump feeling, and she was right and many people had seen it before.
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Videographer/Editor/Producer: Deborah E. Thomas
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