Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Doctors Learn How to Break the Bad News

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Doctors Learn How to Break the Bad News

Article excerpt

For more than an hour, the teacher listened to her students swap stories of their first days working in the hospitals. She remained silent as they vowed to be sensitive to their patients.

And then the teacher, Dr. Lesley Heafitz spoke, her gravelly voice immediately drawing the class's attention. "I have a story to tell you," she began.

She was sick, they knew that. But now she wanted to tell them what a doctor had told her a few days earlier. And the WAY he told her.

He said that if she were not dead by springtime, "I'd be too sick to enjoy it," she recalled.

Heafitz, 54, who has ovarian cancer, commented, "I'd consider that as an example of how not to handle that situation."

In a Harvard Medical School course designed to encourage compassion in future doctors, Heafitz and her fight for life provide testimony that charts and statistics never could.

She had been rocked by her battle with cancer long before the doctor so coldly gave her the death sentence. After being weakened by chemotherapy, she was told that she could no longer see patients in her pediatrics practice. She spent months reconsidering what it meant to call herself a healer. Then she decided that she had things to teach.

So she left the comfort of working in Newburyport, Mass., and returned to her alma mater to tell students about what she found was largely missing from medicine.

"Doctors are controllers," she said. "I think a lot of us go into medicine hoping to control disease. We as physicians don't ask questions about the alternatives. We don't say (to patients): `What else are you doing for this illness? Are you meditating? Are you trying holistic medicine?' "

Heafitz began to change her outlook after she was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1991.

She went one day to the home of a man she calls her "healer," an acting teacher known for coaching people in relaxation techniques. He had her lie on a mat on the floor amid crystals and listen to soothing music. …

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