Many Years Between Beasts

Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD


July 14, 2021

It was impossible to believe that Alan was lying in that pale, plain pine box merely from having caught a summertime disease. That box from which you cannot force your way out. That box in which a twelve-year-old was twelve years old forever. The rest of us live and grow older by the day, but he remains twelve. Millions of years go by, and he is still twelve.

–Philip Roth, Nemesis*

The CT simulation crew called me one day to ask an interesting question. My patient had experienced polio as a child and for the intervening 73 years had had to wear leg braces that went to her proximal thigh. The excellent therapists who do our simulations were torn between asking her to remove the heavy metal devices in order to minimize the chance of artifacts reaching the volume of the pelvis, and leaving them in place so that my patient could roll over and self-position more comfortably.

We sorted all of that out, but afterward, headed back to my office, I stopped dead in my tracks in the middle of the hall. I was overcome by the vision in my head of that little girl so long ago, terribly ill with a virus that, in those times, moved through schools and playgrounds in a way nobody understood, leaving tragedy in its wake*. I wished I could send a message back in time to her poor parents, who must have been frantic with worry, and tell them that it would be okay. That not only would she live, but she'd live well. She would live long enough that one day when she was a great-grandmother, we would need to cure her cancer with a very fancy robot with 120 fingers and a huge, fast brain that would deliver radiation into her body with millimeter precision. That after treatment each day she would call her granddaughter on the computer in her pocket and ask her to pull around the electric car. That in her on-treatment visit we would talk about having enjoyed the sight of the privately owned space capsule going up to the International Space Station earlier that morning on a rocket so big it could be easily watched from houses 170 miles away from the launch pad. Polio tried to steal her life about 5 years before the first man-made object entered orbit. She won.

What badges of courage have your patients worn that spoke to you from the past?

*To truly understand the gripping fear of a world in which polio rampaged through town and country, paralyzing and killing little children with apparently random ferocity, you should read Nemesis by Philip Roth. The anguish there may ring some more recent bells. Let's hear it for vaccines.

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About Dr Kate Hitchcock
Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD, is a radiation oncologist, biomedical engineer, and retired aircraft carrier driver who grew up as a Wyoming cowgirl. When she is not at the hospital, you can find her with Carolyn, Mary, Tyler, Nick, Marlee, and Colby the barking dog, enjoying the natural splendor of the great state of Florida. She thinks you should visit sometime and try to solve the puzzle of why the natives have so carefully shunted all of the tourists toward the House of Mouse. Connect with her on Twitter: @hitchcock_kate


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