Stethoscope used by doctor of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
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Heroic Work

I met Reed, the man who would become one of Shawn’s cancer doctors, minutes after we first came to NIH. The days before we met him were a blur of horror: I had driven Shawn to the local ER and watched him curl up in pain, hours later Shawn had been admitted to that same local hospital and gotten a colonoscopy, and immediately after the operation we learned that Shawn had stage IV cancer. Then we sat in that local hospital from Friday until Monday and never saw an oncologist.

It was one of the worst weekends of my life. Our friends showed up, including our pediatric oncologist friend Jason who worked at NIH. He got us an appointment with the head of surgical oncology there and as soon as we could leave the local hospital, we did. We drove straight to NIH and it was then that I first met Reed.

The doctor in charge spoke with us and explained that what he could do for Shawn. I hugged him. Reed spoke a little, but deferred to his boss for much of that meeting.

However, Reed was the one I would end up interacting with the most in the next six weeks. He was part of the team that operated on Shawn and he was the one who drained the many tubes from Shawn’s lungs and abdomen. (Later he told us that he’d never had to cut someone open with stronger abdominal muscles. Shawn loved that.) We grew close to Reed over December. At first, we called him by his last name, but soon we knew each other as Reed, Marjorie and Shawn. I had to wake him up at times in the middle of the night, so that Shawn could get more pain medicine. He never complained, and would often remind me that it was okay to call for him anytime.

Reed was part of a program where he did research as well as patient care. One day, Shawn asked him if he would be going into purely lab research in the future. “Probably not,” he said. “I am interested in research but I went into medicine to care for patients directly. That will always be a priority of mine.”

“Yes,” Shawn replied, “you’re good with people and you’re a great bedside doctor. You should keep doing this.”

When Shawn died, I kept in touch a little bit with Reed via email. About a month ago, I realized that his research program was going to end soon, and he’d be returning to the West coast to finish his residency. So I sent him an email. Last week, we met up downtown for tacos.

I hadn’t seen him for 15 months, but I recognized him right away. It took my breath away when he walked in the restaurant, which surprised me. Seeing him reminded me of so many of those moments when Shawn was dying, and I felt a huge lump in my throat as we started talking.

We talked about his future and my kids, Shawn’s diagnosis and the difficulties of cancer research. At one point, I thought about how much he’s seen in his life. He isn’t even 30, but he has been forced to think about the big questions in life and watch the light fade from the eyes of too many of his patients. “We keep trying different things in the lab,” he said to me at one point, “but we run into a lot of dead-ends. We still don’t have a lot of answers.” It was clear that he struggled with the problems that he couldn’t solve.

“It must be frustrating to do the work that you do,” I said, “but I’m glad that you’re doing it.”

He paused for a long time, and then said, “You know, I’ve worked with a lot of patients, and many of them have died. It’s hard for most people. Shawn was unique because he faced the end so well.”

I smiled at this. “He was brave,” I said. Reed smiled.

“Sometimes when things are hard, I think about Shawn,” Reed said. “He’s one of those patients who’s really stayed with me. He’s a patient that makes me want to keep going when I feel like things are incredibly difficult.”

I cried a little bit at this, and we talked more about Shawn. “He was a special patient,” Reed said.

“We were lucky to have you as our doctor,” I replied.

Eventually, it was time to go. “Keep going,” I said. “My kids are going to grow up and I need you to find the cure for cancer. Or at least make some big strides in that direction.”

“I’m going to try my best,” he said, and we hugged.

As he walked away, I thought about Reed and the countless doctors who do similar work, knowing that there are so many dead ends. Maybe someday, Reed will cure cancer and win a Nobel for it. But more likely, he’ll hit more dead ends, have more frustrations and counsel more patients about end-of-life care.

Either way, it’s heroic work.


  • Maurie Beck

    I know dead ends are frustrating, but dead end approaches are hard-won knowledge that either tell researchers a hypothesis really is a dead end, or generate a question of why an approach didn’t work when it seemed so promising. A truly unambiguous failure is really a gift. It says do not proceed any further on this path and spares one from any future waste of time. Unfortunately, results are often ambiguous and therefore really vexing. Those cases generally indicate some fundamental bit of knowledge is missing. It’s all a great puzzle, but in the mean time people are suffering and dying.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, you are right – part of being a researcher is facing these dead ends and still forging a path forward. I so admire the people who do this work.