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Caregivers recognize cancer patient with honorary medical diploma

In early October, a group of doctors and nurses from Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford held a special celebration for one of their patients.

The caregivers, from the hospital's pediatric oncology team, wanted to honor 26-year-old Minal Patel, a young woman with a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. The cancer usually strikes kids and teenagers; Patel has been treated at a pediatric hospital because she needed the expertise of a team familiar with the disease.

Before Patel was diagnosed three years ago, she was working in a research lab at the University of California, San Diego and planning a career in medicine. Cancer has derailed her plans -- her tumor relapsed earlier this year and her medical prognosis is poor.

Her doctors and nurses wanted to make sure she knew the impact she'd had on medicine through her close relationships with them, so they surprised her with an honorary medical diploma. I was lucky enough to attend the ceremony, which was fun and joyful, and to write a story about the ties Patel has developed with physician Emily Johnston, MD:

During her treatment, Patel became close to her caregivers, especially Johnston. 'She's one of those rare physicians who keeps a physician-patient relationship and adds a friendship aspect to it,' Patel said. The two discussed cancer, but also talked about many elements of their daily lives. Their relationship increased Patel's confidence that she was being treated as a person, not just a patient, and boosted her ability to have a positive outlook about her situation.

When Patel was diagnosed, Johnston was only two months into her pediatric oncology fellowship. Their close doctor-patient connection has meant a lot to her, too.

'Minal is just so fun and feisty; I always come out of her [hospital] room with a smile on my face,' Johnston said. The two have bonded over their shared love of soccer. Their medical discussions include a lot of give and take; Patel once told Johnston she wished she'd been warned that her hair would always be different after chemotherapy, for example. 'I'm learning how to be a pediatric oncologist,' Johnston said. 'I really appreciate that she is thoughtful and reflects on what's going on.'

The next day, when I spoke by phone with Patel, she told me what the ceremony had meant to her:

It's the acts of kindness that remind me of the goodness of the present and people. Even in this very dark phase of cancer, there's still brightness to it.

Previously: Tips for helping families deal with childhood cancer, "I carry your heart": Abraham Verghese on the doctor-patient relationship and Why technology won't destroy the doctor-patient relationship
Photo by Erin Digitale

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