Conquer Cancer Foundation: When grief is an occupational hazard, it's hard not to bring work home. Lidia Schapira teaches doctors how to help patients approach the end of their lives. What kind of lessons did her children learn from a parent who regularly cares for, and loses, seriously ill patients? Lauren Goldstein talks to Dr. Schapira, her mother, the current Editor in Chief of Cancer.Net, and a Conquer Cancer Foundation donor about growing up in the shadows of cancer.
Lidia Schapira: I think I fell into being a doctor in part through identification with my dad, who was a wonderful, kind, compassionate doctor. And also because of my real desire to do something that would help people. But there is sort of this inevitability of things spilling over. And the boundaries, I think, become very porous between work life and home life, especially when the work is so emotionally intense. And specifically, I remember one holiday we had as a family in Prince Edward Island when I was very heavily involved in grieving the anticipated loss of a very, very dear patient who was in the final weeks of life. And I just was so careful, I thought, not to have this spill over. And I just wondered if you remember back to that holiday and if you could sense that something was going on.
Lauren Goldstein: I do remember that vacation. I remember it very well. I got the new NSYNC CD, and I listened to it probably 70 times in a week. And I did not know what was going on with you at all. When you were grieving, I honestly didn't see it.
Lidia Schapira: That's reassuring for me in so many ways. It really is a balm to hear that. Do you remember any of the fun events? Like the famous lunch in East Boston with a family that made the best meatballs?
Lauren: Yes, this was a patient who I think was quite sick at the time.
Lidia: Very ill lady who did not want to know her diagnosis. Didn't speak a word of English but–
Lauren: Spoke no English.
Lidia: –wanted to have us over for Sunday dinner.
Lauren: Yeah. And she made the best meatballs I've ever had. It was like an all-day meatball affair, the way that she prepared those. This was a moment that was presumably sad for you and some sort of goodbye in some way, a way to incorporate that personal relationship into the goodbye. Maybe I don't know how sick she was in that moment, but I know now that that was near the end of her life. And I missed it because the meatballs were so good [laughter]. So I'm curious what you would say you're most proud of.
Lidia: Most importantly, and meaningful to me are the moments when I felt that my presence made a change in a situation. That by my own ability to be there, either by connecting to somebody, by giving solace to a family, by making the right diagnosis, by providing access to a therapy that profoundly impacted on somebody's life, or just by accompanying and witnessing what was happening, that my being there actually helped. That is absolutely and by far the stuff that gives me the greatest sense of peace and purpose. And then, on a perhaps more intellectual level, when I felt that by virtue of a conversation or a talk or my modeling my behavior, a young physician got it. That they got something that was important that they had not seen before, that perhaps had remained theoretical or abstract, but they got it. So perhaps my feeling is that mentoring is almost like an extension of parenting. It's almost as joyful as when your kids somehow get something that is so enormously important to you, and that they show you that they really understood at a deep and lasting level.
Lauren: I'm also curious what you would say you were least proud of.
Lidia: It was when I had a meeting in Washington. We were living in Boston at the time, and it was 7:00 in the morning. And I was about to go out to the airport. And I remember Karen, Timmy's mom, called and said she couldn't do carpool that afternoon. And I said, "Oh, yeah, yeah, that's fine." Mark was in third grade. And I rushed out the door thinking that I would make alternate pickup arrangements for Mark. And I forgot. Then I went on to my lovely meeting and everything. And it wasn't until I was on the shuttle on my way home, and they said, "We're about to take off," and without smartphones and at that point, there was no way to communicate that I remembered that I hadn't acted on the information. But I remember walking into the house that night, and both Mark and your dad gave me a look like, "We don't want to hear from you [laughter]. Your name is mud." And I really had that image of juggling. And I felt that one of those little glass balls that I had in the air had just dropped and shattered. But fortunately, there were very few such moments. [music]
Conquer Cancer Foundation: The Conquer Cancer Foundation's mission is to conquer cancer worldwide by funding breakthrough research and sharing cutting-edge knowledge. To learn more about the participants in this session and others like it, please visit conquer.org/storycorps.