An Excerpt from The Light Within Transcript

M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
Date: September 2008
Duration: 0 / 05:10

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The Light Within is the true story of an extraordinary friendship between Lois Ramondetta, a gynecologic oncologist at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and Deborah Rose Sills, a professor of religion diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Listen as Dr. Ramondetta shares an excerpt from this heartfelt story about the intersection of spirituality and medicine.

Lois Ramondetta, M.D.:

I first met Deborah Rose Sills late one December evening in 1998. I was a fellow at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, Texas, pursuing a career in gynecologic oncology, and she was a patient - a forty-nine year old woman with ovarian cancer.

I'd been on duty since 5:30 that morning, and at about ten o'clock - almost fifteen hours later - I finally made it back to my second home, a cramped hospital call room I shared with the rest of the trainees in my department. I'd reviewed my "To Do" list, collapsed onto the room's tiny bed, and drifted off to sleep, but I was roused a short time later by the insistent buzzing of my pager. I reached for the phone, none to happy, and dialed the nurses' station.

"It's Dr. Ramondetta," I said. "What's up?"

"The patient in room 710 won't drink her GoLYTELY," the nurse said.

I found this pretty irritating. I'm a New Jersey girl, only recently transplanted to Texas, and definitely am not as laid back as the natives. I didn't appreciate being robbed of sleep by a patient who seemed to have no regard for authority. To compound matters, she was my chairman's patient, and the political component only upset me further.

When I walked into her room, my arms crossed to show my displeasure, I met a woman who greeted me with equal obstinancy: her hands were on her hips, and she stared at me, ready to do battle.

"So," I said, looking into her lively, defiant eyes. "I hear you won't drink your laxative."

"That's right," she replied, not blinking.

Deb's husband, Giles Gunn, a gentle-looking but slightly intimidating figure, was standing beside her. He seemed curious about the direction in which our stubbornness would take us, but I knew that this late night summons could have only one possible ending: my chairman's patient was going to be prepared for surgery whether she liked it or not.

"That's going to be a problem," I said , trying to keep my voice level and patient. "You have a small bowel obstruction that requires surgical intervention, and you are due in the operating room tomorrow morning. If you don't drink your GoLYTELY, there's not going to be any surgery."

"I haven't eaten in two weeks," she said. "I'm already empty."

"I know that's what you think, but we need to clean you out completely," I said. "Otherwise, there's a risk of spillage and infection."

"There's nothing to spill," she said, getting angry. "I've been throwing up for weeks."

"Deb," Giles said gently. "There's no reason to get upset."

She didn't answer. She just stared at me, waiting for my next move.

"Look," I said. "I can pour the stuff over ginger ale or put it on ice - it might taste a little better that way - but that's about all I can do. If you don't drink it, there won't be any surgery."

She looked at Giles, then back at me. She was still angry, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle."Okay," she said. "I'll try."

"Thank you," I said. "That's all I ask."

The next morning she was taken to the operating room as planned. Since I was the physician at the bottom of the medical team hierarchy, it was my job to make the first incision, and I used a scalpel to open her abdominal cavity - all the way from her umbilicus to her pubic bone. I was relieved to see no visible cancer, the usual cause of bowel blockage in these cases, but her small intestine was matted with adhesions. The surgery was long and tedious - lasting over six hours in total. The team went from stricture to stricture, releasing each adhesion by sliding the scalpel along the outside of the bowel, as if scaling a fish. At each point of release, we advanced a few centimeters, until at long last we reached the end of the small intestine. With the job done, and with all of us feeling that it had been a success, Deb was sewn up and wheeled into the recovery room.

The following morning, as I did every morning, I made the rounds of all the patients on the gynecologic service. I usually started at 5:30 a.m., waking patients, collecting vital data, and hurried to get done by six. I quickly learned that Deb needed to be left for last on morning rounds, otherwise I wouldn't have time to see the rest of the patients.

I will never forget how she looked in the morning. If she was awake, she would yawn and stretch her arms wide, as if trying to embrace the day, and she always greeted me with great vigor: "Good morning, Dr. Lois!" If she was asleep, I'd wake her with a gentle touch, and she'd open her eyes and smile broadly, waking with a loud "Hello!"

"How are you feeling?" I'd ask.

"I feel great!" she'd say, so full of energy she seemed lit from within.

Truthfully, it was hard for me to imagine anyone in her position feeling great. She had intravenous tubes in her arms, a nasogastric tube in her nose, and another tube protuding through the skin of her abdomen. The latter two were hooked to suction canisters on the wall. Despite it all, she was beaming.

"How can you feel great?" I asked, smiling. Her joy was contagious.

"Well, I've been told I have no cancer," she said. "And there's the possibility of eating again."

At that point, I knew very little about Deborah Rose Sills. I knew she was a professor of religion from Santa Barbara, California; that she was married and had two kids; and that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer the previous year. What I did not know then is that she and I were about to embark on one of the most remarkable relationships of my life.


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