When Oncologists Retire, Their Patients Must Learn to Embrace Change

“We’re all blessed that there are so many dedicated, caring health care professionals willing to step in and fill the void when members of the team move or retire,” writes a patient with cancer. “We can never forget how tough a gig it is or say thank you enough.”

I didn’t see it coming. Maybe I should have. The oncologist who has kept me alive for the past five years is retiring in September. This physician who gave me her cellphone number and the first of many hugs the day she gave me my stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis is abandoning me. I know intellectually that this is not her intent, but emotionally that’s how I feel. The captain is abandoning ship, leaving me adrift.

I don’t know if it’s the same with other specialties, but with oncology, when the stakes are so high and so often the end results not good, having a team a cancer patient can trust is paramount. It’s what allows me to sleep at night. My oncologist is constantly seeking new, cutting edge treatments in hopes of extending my life while not destroying the quality of that life.

I’m in treatment for the rest of my life. It’s reasonable to assume members of my care team will change jobs, move or retire. The medical assistant I adored for her can-do attitude moved when her husband was transferred after being a kind, familiar face at the clinic for more than four years. I was bereft that I didn’t even get to say goodbye or wish her well. The nurse who staffed the small clinic I attend decided to head back to the main clinic before retiring this spring. When I was under her care, she stocked the clinic with chocolate and Tootsie Pops and provided blankets that she took home and washed herself.

Change is hard. “My” new nurse is equally kind, caring and competent.

Every member of my care team is important to me. Seeing their kind faces, talking to them about their families, vacations and interesting anecdotes that pass the time in the infusion room — these things make a lifetime of treatment more bearable. Still, I have to recognize that I’m one of many, many patients treated by these health care professionals. The infusion room in the big clinic sees 90 patients a day on average. So I understand that they might not see me the way I see them or be able to expend the emotional capital that is required to care for each patient.

I know burnout is a big problem for oncologists and those who work in these clinics. They have to walk a narrow line of caring, but not caring too much. I want them to know, however, how much I appreciate it when they call me by name and ask how I’m doing.

I know about my oncologist’s two crazy dogs, her vegetable garden, the ducks that didn’t work out and her new vacation home. That vacation home will soon be her forever retirement home.

So what do I do? Another oncologist will staff the smaller clinic. Is that how I choose a new doctor — based on convenience of location? I’ve already started researching my choices. I’ll ask for recommendations. I’ll discuss them with my current oncologist. We’ll figure it out. Then, I’ll thank her for her kindness, her generosity of time, her smiles, her hugs and her determined persistence in finding treatments that work. I’ll wish her a lovely, well-deserved retirement. I’ll thank God to have been so blessed to have such an experienced, smart oncologist and pray for another one like her. I’ll remember how blessed I am to still be here to face this dilemma.

As cancer patients, we’re all blessed that there are so many dedicated, caring health care professionals willing to step in and fill the void when members of the team move or retire. We can never forget how tough a gig it is or say thank you enough.

So, thank you, Dr. Irene Kazhdan; thank you, Suzanne Garcia, R.N.; thank you, Shay Nixon, M.A., wherever you are. And my heartfelt thanks to those who come after you.

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