To the Cancer Patient Who Changed My Life in 4 Minutes and 51 Seconds

To the girl who changed my world in 4 minutes and 51 seconds:

You were 17, a patient in the PICU. I was 22, a brand new child-life specialist. The child-life specialists you knew and loved were off for the weekend, so I was called to your room. You were so gracious, understanding and welcoming. You reasonably had much more experience with this than I did, but when I asked how I could help, you said you wanted me in the OR with you, and you wanted to listen to Adele on the iPad while you fell asleep. A girl who knows what she wants… I like it!

An hour later we were wheeling into the OR, listening to “When We Were Young.” I’d never heard it before; you, an avid Adele fan knew every single word. Trying to keep the mood light in the operating room, I told you we should pretend we were at an Adele concert together singing our hearts out. I set my iPad on your lap and did the awkward concert thing where you wave your arms back and forth to the beat of a sappy song. You know the one. The anesthesiologist looked at me, shook his head, and said “Wow… you must, um, go to a lot of concerts.” You let out an audible giggle from under your mask just before the anesthesia finally took over. Mission. Accomplished.

I heard from my child-life coworkers a few days later that you had already decided this would be your final surgery. You had courageously fought cancer once, and came out victorious on the other side only to have the cancer return with a vengeance. You had endured endless inpatient hospital stays, port accesses, lab draws, chemo, radiation, follow up scans, and many PICU admissions. You had made it through a ridiculous number of invasive surgeries that resulted in chest tubes, central lines, limb amputation, and I cannot even imagine how many painful recovery days you had clocked. But this, this was to be the last. No more chest tubes, no more anesthesia, and no more PICU. No more pretend concerts in the operating room.

Your soul was so, so tough, but your body had had enough, and you knew it. I admired and respected your brave decision with every piece of my being.

I couldn’t help, though, but selfishly feel sorry for our loss that was to come. You brightened the unit every time you were admitted, sharing your beautiful artistic skills with other patients and all the staff. When in remission, you tore it up on the dance floor at oncology prom, inspiring other patients to push through their tough days. You made the world a better place every single day, and I hope you knew that.

I am so sorry you spent most of your adolescence isolated in a hospital bed. I’m sorry that despite all of our medical advances, your cancer prevailed. I’m sorry you had to grow up so fast, even if you did it so gracefully. And mostly, I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you much, much earlier.

I wish you were still here so I could tell you this in person. I wish I could tell you I was so incredibly proud of the impossible decision you had made for yourself. I wish I could tell you I can’t listen to Adele without thinking of our OR jam session. I wish I could tell you how much I appreciated that moment with you, even at the ridicule of the medical staff. I wish I could thank you for what your unspoken words taught me. I wish I could thank you for trusting me and going along with my antics. I wish I could thank you for showing me what courage really means when it is lived out. I wish I could thank you for, simply put, making me a better child-life specialist and human being.

I was driving home when I heard your song on the radio tonight. I thought of you, just as I always do. I thought of how grateful I am that our paths crossed, even if only for what seemed like a brief moment. I thought of your beautiful artwork hanging in the child-life office. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say I will think of you every time I hear this song. Just like I did tonight.

So, to you, the incredibly brave girl who changed my world and my heart in (approximately) 4 minutes and 51 seconds:

Thank you, and I’m sorry.

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