“How [Resilient] Thou Art”
By: Christian Medical & Dental Associations®
November 18, 2019
by David Velez
Cancer is a meddlesome yet surmountable disease. During my internal medicine rotation at York Memorial Hospital in York, Pennsylvania, I worked with patients in the hematology/oncology unit. It was a difficult few weeks. However, as I spent more time on the wards, I grew comfortable learning medicine and, more importantly, growing closer to patients.
One patient who sticks out in my mind is RG. She has a history of various cancers and presented to the hospital with fatigue and dizziness, secondary to R-CHOP chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer has plagued her health as of late, but RG was excited to share how she has been able to overcome so many obstacles in her life.
On my first encounter, she was extremely warm—physically and personality-wise. My hands were ice cold after using sanitizer prepping for her physical exam, but she liked how my hands cooled her down. Through my patient interview, I got to know about her life story. RG lives on a farm with her husband where they happily raised their children, and now she gets to enjoy her new grandkids. She loves her family immensely. Unfortunately, she has been sick for the last decade of her life. Before becoming ill, she worked full-time as a manager for Comcast Television. For years, RG would travel across the U.S. and internationally to train employees. According to her, she saw every corner of the U.S. and loved it.
Her work trips were cut short in 2016 when she had a seizure after a plane ride from Seattle, Washington to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This marked the beginning of her journey with an aggressive brain cancer, Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).
GBM was scary for her. Too many treatments, too many healthcare professionals and too many medical bills. which became overwhelming at the time. When I asked her how she survived her brain cancer, she said, “Prayer really works.” I learned that her favorite song is “How Great Thou Art” performed by Carrie Underwood. This was a really special song for her. She states that prayer helped her see God in her life, which gave her hope to reach remission.
Throughout the rest of the week, I visited her to gather physical exam findings, check orthostatic blood pressures and catch up on her life. She had many family members visit her throughout her stay. I met her husband, parents and best friends. I witnessed her immense social support and how all of her loved ones care for her deeply. I could tell this was not the first time they had to support her cancer battle. RG’s health was a priority to them. They appeared to be seasoned caretakers and hopeful she would kick back this new non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
There’s something beautifully resilient about RG. Before her brain cancer diagnosis, she had cancer of her uterus 15 years ago. This new blood cancer marks her third encounter with cancer. She knows the exhausting treatment, she knows the nauseating side effects and she knows the darkness that comes when facing her mortality. However, she always reminded herself that she finds the will to live in her family’s love for her. RG’s determination shines light on her onerous path to beating cancer.
Toward the end of her stay at the hospital. I received a page from her nurse saying RG would like an extra dose of her anxiety medication. My attending approved the request. I went to RG’s room and asked if she was okay. She was sitting up in bed, glossy-eyed and staring into her sheets. I pulled up a chair next to her. Then she turned to me and sorrowfully said, “I don’t want to die.” This moment left me gutted.
I did not know what to say. My tongue felt heavy, but I knew I needed to respond in some way. As a 23-year-old who has had a long stretch of good health up until this point, it’s hard for me to relate to someone who’s been battling cancer for decades. I saw her terrified by a possible reality that she has faced before and now questions her ability to overcome mortality. This moment let me witness the vulnerability that sets the stage for showcasing her resiliency.
Instead of saying something, I played her favorite song, “How Great Thou Art,” on my phone. Once the song came on, the nurse came and brought her anxiolytic. She was immediately relieved. The lyric in the song, “That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,” was embodied when she took a deep breath and tuned into the music. I could see her feel better when she closed her eyes and rocked back and forth. I believe RG saw the symbol of the cross as a picture of comfort for her woes.
I witnessed RG watch a concert performance by Carrie Underwood helping her shake off her anxiety. She found joy in the song’s message. RG was no longer paralyzed by fear; instead, she was able to exchange being overwhelmed with awe over the great love she has in her family. Despite her circumstances, she finds comfort in appreciating the blessings she has in life. This moment will never leave my heart.
When people say that someone is resilient, maybe it means that someone is able to withstand difficult circumstances. And when we behave resiliently enough times, perhaps we can be considered a resilient person. RG’s behavior led to her to survive her cancer diagnoses in the past, and I believe the third time is the charm, hopefully for good.
David Velez is a medical student at Penn State – Hershey College of Medicine (2021). His active involvement in the CMDA chapter has included service on the leadership team. As an undergraduate at University of Scranton, David focused on theology and religious studies, as well as biochemistry and cell and molecular biology.