Humans of New York is breaking our hearts right now. Literally. They’re posting a series of stories on pediatric cancer, and it’s absolutely devastating. Some of the stories are told by parents, while others are told by doctors. The array and diversity of personal narratives and definitely an eye-opener in that cancer affects everyone involved–even those who aren’t family.
One surgeon opened up about how he feels when he loses one of his patients, and has to confront the parents. Dr. Michael P. La Quaglia, Chief Pediatric Surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, described how he feels a huge loss every time he loses a child:
“The absolute best thing in the world that can happen to me is telling a parent that their child’s tumor is benign. I live for those moments. And the worst thing that can happen to me is telling a parent that I’ve lost their kid. It’s only happened to me five times in thirty years. And I’ve wanted to kill myself every single time.
I go to church every single day. And I think that I’m going to see those kids in a better place. And I’m going to tell them that I’m sorry. And hopefully they’ll say, ‘Forget it. Come on in.’”
On the flip side, it’s a complete horror story for parents. One Jewish dad opened up about how he struggled with his son, Avi’s cancer battle, who was diagnosed at age 11:
“The pediatrician sent us here because she saw something on his X-ray…I didn’t want him to feel scared so I told him it was just a silly little test, and we’d be going home soon…When the doctors finally came back they looked very scared. The doctor told us, ‘We’re having a difficult time keeping his airway open.’ I was so confused. This was just supposed to be a test. I asked him: ‘What do you mean?’ He said: ‘Avi could die.’ He kept repeating it: ‘Avi could die.’ Then he said: ‘It’s time to pray.’
They told us Avi had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The tumor was too big to remove so he began 25 months of chemo. Everything went wrong. Complication after complication. The ‘worst case scenario’ happened so many times that we began to expect it. He had over thirty surgeries. They completely removed his esophagus. He couldn’t eat for nineteen months. And he couldn’t talk for seven months–not a whisper.
One day during chemo, when his hair started to fall out, Avi turned to me and said: ‘I think I know why this is happening. I made fun of somebody at school one time.’ And that just broke my heart. I can’t describe what it felt like to watch him suffer. It was torture. I used to lay with him in bed at night and wish so bad that it could be me instead. I’d do anything to switch places with him. One night when he was really hurting, he told me: ‘You can’t understand what I’m going through, Dad.’ And I told him, ‘Trust me Avi. I can.’”
All of these stories, both from parents and doctors alike, are so heartbreaking. There is nothing more tragic than a child’s life cut short–or paused temporarily–to fight such a debilitating disease. If these stories teach us anything, they teach us to be kinder to each other, because we don’t have any other guarantees than the present moment.