Doug Shoemaker, a maritime attorney from Houston, is a survivor of stage IV colon cancer. He was diagnosed at age 36 in 2005, after having had colitis for 17 years. Three surgeries followed, as did three and a half years of chemotherapy. After nine years of appointments at MD Anderson's Gastrointestinal (GI) Clinic, he finally got a 12-month break. He mentioned to his physician, Cathy Eng, M.D., professor, Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, that he was hoping to ring the bell to signify the end of his treatment, as is customary in other clinical areas of MD Anderson.
When he learned the GI Clinic did not have such a bell, the former captain set out to resolve the issue. A generous client donated a 12-inch bell from a commercial ship, but it became too challenging to install it in a busy hospital hallway. Shoemaker arranged for a smaller bell, though perhaps "not strictly U.S. Coast Guard-compliant," which now hangs in the clinic.
Shoemaker feels a ship's bell is particularly appropriate for the clinic. It not only is fun to ring, but also offers a long, pleasant tone with deep meaning. As for its maritime significance, ships more than 65 feet long must have a sound-producing device, such as a bell, to indicate the vessel's maneuvers or position in limited visibility.
"On a ship in fog, one may feel lost or disconcerted. Hearing the horn or bell of a nearby ship helps give perspective and a feeling of security knowing others are nearby," says Shoemaker.
Shoemaker compares cancer treatment - whether from the perspective of a patient or a caregiver - to being on the water in fog. It can be scary and disorienting and can cause a sense of aloneness. Hearing a bell and knowing someone else is out there brings relief and comfort.
"Whether a patient completed treatment or merely had a good day, the bell reminds us that others are going through similar situations," says Shoemaker. "And, although today might be a rough day, one may have the chance to ring the bell another day, and perhaps bring solace to others who hear the bell ring."
Shoemaker donated the bell to the GI Clinic in memory of his mother, Nancy Shoemaker, and a dear friend, James Sentner, both of whom lost their lives to colon cancer. Shoemaker and Senter, also a maritime attorney, became well-acquainted while they both endured treatment at MD Anderson. Sentner, who died in 2015 after a long and valiant fight, was a mentor and inspiration to Shoemaker, personally and professionally.
Nancy Shoemaker lost her relatively short battle with colon cancer in 2014. after having treatment closer to her home in Illinois.
While Shoemaker misses his mother and friend, he hopes the bell might bring comfort to others navigating their paths in the GI Clinic at MD Anderson.