I was going to write a post that was an upbeat examination of salvage treatment, focussing on the role of the doctors and scientists who work so hard to create treatment options and cures where previously there were none. Their ingenuity and tenacity inspires hope where there wasn’t any before.
However, during the past year and half since my heart transplant I have realised something I hadn’t before. As much as medical science, doctors and scientists have to offer me, our relationship is not a one way street, it is mutually beneficial. Over the years there are many, many times I have been a guinea pig for medical science.
When serious illness occurs and death is looming, we rightly seek out doctors in the hope of finding answers and whatever treatment will cure the situation. But while doctors are very knowledgeable and skilled, they don’t always have a clear-cut solution. Salvage treatment is what doctors turn to when that solution doesn’t exist, using it to try to save someone from an illness that can’t be cured and is going to cause bodily harm resulting in eventual death. Salvage treatment is the last ditch effort to remedy the situation. Every medical treatment ever created started out as a salvage treatment, science’s attempts to right the wrongs of the diseased body.
I am grateful for salvage treatment because it has saved my life on many occasions. Transplants are the definition of salvage treatment; when organs fail and there are no options for recovery, it is transplantation or death. More recently I discovered that foscarnet, the drug used to treat my Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is also a salvage treatment. Ganciclovir is the first line of defence for CMV and is usually sufficient to treat it but when the patient is resistant, foscarnet is the next line of defence. Since untreated CMV in an immunosuppressed patient such as me can be fatal, I’m very glad that second line of defence exists.
The other day I was struck by a quote featured in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies,” a biography of cancer. Mukherjee quotes journalist Paul Brodeur, who says “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.”
He’s exactly right; it baffles the mind when you really think about it. At the moment, 1500 people are waiting for an organ transplant in Ontario. Fifteen hundred families are handling enormous grief, facing the fear of death, and dealing with whatever situation put their loved one on the list in the first place. Then there are the numbers of people who have a transplant or multiple transplants, the people dealing with cancer, and millions of other people dealing with chronic illness.
Those are a lot of tears.
But the tears are not cried in vain. Instead, the tears of patients who have come before me have benefitted me, and my own tears will hopefully benefit future patients.
The title of patient is an apt one because we are patient. We allow doctors to cut our flesh, to remove pieces of our bodies, to root out tumours, to pump us full of drugs and toxins, all in the hopes of having more time with our families, of reaching that elusive cure that is going to guarantee an average lifespan instead of a dramatically shortened one.
With salvage treatment, we as patients are the salvagers too, not just the doctors. We are the ones who refuse to give up, who will not accept that death is the only option. We dare to try whatever treatment our doctors present us with, and our determination to survive fuels scientific exploration. We hope for the best and cry with grief when things don’t turn out the way we hoped they would. We deal with the day-to-day realities of life with illness, and the side effects of the treatments that are supposed to save our lives. We cry the tears of pain and anguish in the hope of crying tears of joy when the trial is over, and our tears build medical knowledge for tomorrow.