Strength in Weakness

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By Isaac Van Sligtenhorst

strengthinweaknessfinal.jpgIsaac van Sligtenhorst is a physician-in-training in the Texas Medical Center. He blogs about his training, as well as battling cancer from the perspective of a caregiver. Read more about his approach to grief, hope and life in general at

Fifteenth floor, leukemia and lymphoma ward. My dad was admitted here twice, the second time the same day my brother died.

I knew the floor well.

I had just finished with my patient and was waiting for the elevator. A phenomenal case. History of four different cancers, pulmonary embolism, triple coronary bypass, a stroke 80 years young, still alive and kicking.

Truly a touching experience.

Connecting with compassion

While waiting for the elevator, a young guy walks up slowly with his IV pole. He's big and broad shouldered. I'm not exactly slight of frame, but he towers over me. Probably in his early 20s, he sports a baldness that could easily be fashionable. But his absence of eyebrows says the lack of hair is due to far more grim reasons.

Below his eyebrows, his eyes catch me. There is a yearning in them. Something so elementally human, which desired contact.

I hesitate, but then decide to let my sorrow and weakness guide me into uncharted elements of human contact. 

"Taking your pole for a walk, huh? Have you named it yet?" I ask. He must see some openness in me, which is surprising because I'm told that when I put on my white coat, I assume my old football persona -- a take-charge quarterback. But he sees something different and it comes out in his response.

"Nah, not yet ... but I should. It's been my sixth pole ... I've just been angry for so long. Ya know? It took awhile to work through that."

"It is hard. I watched my brother fight his own battles with those poles."

"Lymphoma? How's he doing?"

Called into cancer

I sensed a hope in his voice that he wanted to hear a story with a happy ending. Hear how someone beat this damned disease. Sorry, partner.

"He passed away this past May due to thymic cancer. No, it's my dad who has lymphoma."

"Geez. You a doctor?"


"Man, you're getting called to go into cancer."

I grimly chuckle and reply, "I know. You sound just like my wife."

The elevator settles down onto the first floor and the doors open. I turn to face him, grasp his hand firmly, look him straight in the eyes and try with all my effort to convey compassion in my own eyes.

"Hey, I wish you the best in your fight."

"You, too. And God don't make no mistakes."

A wise and wizened rabbi had counseled our class to engage each patient more fully, not be so quick to put up our defenses and not be afraid to show our humanity. To truly connect as human beings and to do everything nearly opposite of what we as doctors are trained to do. 

To do so, we would be graced with a more rewarding career and less chance of burning out. 

I think I just had my first experience with that being true.

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