By Kerry Tinga
The ultimate goal is to work to make medicine and cancer care systems available to people wherever they need it, whenever they need it,” said Chris Dee. That was how he opened our conversation. Before that we were discussing becoming newly christened godparents and the pleasures of newborn babies. It makes it easy to forget that the 27-year-old has chosen to specialize in radiation oncology, where patients are on the line between life and death.
Dee recently had his paper, “Not Thinking of Applause,” published in the prestigious Journal of Cancer Education. It details his work with a terminally ill young girl, one whose situation he found absurdly unfair, but common. It was a surprise that his paper was not full of statistics and cold logic, but of human warmth and sympathy. He tells us that writing in a literary style has become increasingly common for cancer journals.
“This isn’t medical journalism, where you need to try to break down facts in layman’s terms.”
Applying the arts is about helping caregivers to understand the struggles, joys, and pains of this very human experience
A graduate of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry of Yale University, now studying medicine at Harvard, his journey to cancer care began at his alma mater. “When I was there,” he opines, “I learned that there’s more thann one way to do good things. More than one way to make the world a better place.” The path he decided on was chosen because it was a more humanistic approach to medicine, one where you learn to better appreciate your patients.
Of course, it is not always easy. For Dee, there are two kinds of pressure when it comes to medicine. The first is an acute sense of pressure, where there is the pressure of time as a person’s life slips away. The second is one he always feels acutely when visiting patients, which is asking the question: Is this enough? Are we doing enough?
Along with the obvious job of healing the ill, the role of the doctor should be to act as a support and comfort in trying times. “You should never let them lose hope,” he wrote at the very beginning of his published paper.
By the time our interview winds down, all I have left to ask is what words he has for the Filipino youth who are interested in taking up medicine. He takes a few moments, before replying with a very frank and truthful depiction of what lies ahead for them.
“Get to know the field. Medicine isn’t easy. It tends to be glamorized, but it’s as human as it gets. There are things you will see that will make you question humanity, things that will make you question your faith, your belief. […] You’re butting heads with what causes people to get sick. Not just mutations in cells but society, poverty, pollution. Things that are seemingly so out of the scope of medical science but are part and parcel of it. Know if you want to be part of it. Spend time in the clinic. Observe the lives you will be treating, be touching, and know you will be part of this.
And if you know you want to be part of this, stick to it. It is difficult, but it gets richer with every year,” he says.
Ultimately, Dee is an aspiring doctor whose humanity and love for his patients we can only hope is emulated in the field of medicine for years to come.
I can think of no better way to end this piece than with the way he has ended his paper:“We can neither deny the tragedy of death nor can be absolved of carrying even a bit of that weight for our patients. Yet perhaps, we owe it to the dying to show death amazement, arguably even love, for how it teaches us to live out our time. And to choose to live like the children do, with hope, not thinking of applause.”