Friday, June 29, 2007

How the giants have fallen...

My brother tells me that in blackjack sometimes, cards come in 'runs' --- a number of deals where the cards are condusive to winning and then sometimes runs where for deal after deal, the cards dealt are a losing lot. Some periods on call, there is a strange similarity between patient cases.

That night, we admitted two tall 16 year olds. One was 6'3", the other was 6'2". Both were high school athletes. One had just qualified for the state championship, jumping his height in the high jump event.

The first one I will call Peter. He had golden curls. He was polite, had no tattooes or piercings. He did not smoke, drink or even have a girlfriend. He had the build of a track and field athlete. He was flown in by helicopter from an outside facility for progressive loss of sensation in his lower extremities. Over the next several weeks, we treated him with steroids, thought we had it beat, discharged him, only to admit him back in worse state.

I still remember the night I was told he was back. I was off that day but Sunday afternoon after church, I went to PICU to see him. There he lay: a 16 year old athlete in a diaper, incontinent of urine, able to open his eyes but not able to speak. He ground his teeth incomprehensively. I cam out of his room and wept secretly in anger and frustration.

The second 16 year old also came to us by helicopter almost within days of the first patient. He too was clean-cut handsome, wholesome male. He had some numbness and tingling in his hands and a lump at the back of his neck. I remember the strange sight at 1:00 am in the morning when 3 specialists -- a neurosurgeon, a pediatric intensivist and a pediatric oncologist, flanked by a couple of residents stood discussing the possibilities.

"I hope he has a lymphoma" someone says.

We all agree, shaking our heads. Then it hit me. Here we were wishing that a previously healthy 16 year old athlete had a form of cancer.

How strange is that?

The reason for our wish was that we had seen the preliminary scans of his spinal cord. The alternative diagnosis was a rhabdomyosarcoma -- a cancer in which often 90% die in 2 years of diagnosis. This patient had some cancer. We were hoping it was the more treatable one with a better prognosis than this.

He had rhabdomyosarcoma.

As the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit resident that month, I was often the one to give specialists involved in his case the news. The pained expression on each face as they heard the news told me they felt as I did. So much for clinical distance.

Both boys are home now. Both endured painful procedures. One has rhabdomyosarcoma and the other may have multiple sclerosis -- an aggressive form at that. They are being treated with the best we have to offer.

O how the giants fell that night. I do not believe I shall ever forget them.

Addendum - written on May 22 2009

Today I received notification that the second patient described above (let's call him Big Ben) died at his home, surrounded by friends and family. He was 18 years old. This week, this was the third death notice we received -- the other patients were younger and died of ALL, having failed bone marrow transplantation. Cancer in children is a horrible disease. I don't know how the Peds Heme/Onc specialists do this!