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When the doctor becomes the patient

Retired oral surgeon, Dr. David Hafer, shares his story as a doctor, a patient and a person battling anal cancer.

“When you’re stricken with a life-threatening diagnosis, suddenly, everything changes in a heartbeat,” said Dr. David Hafer, a retired oral surgeon from Montana.

For Dr. Hafer, this transforming moment came in 2012 when he was diagnosed with a form of squamous cell carcinoma anal cancer.

“That was a very interesting moment in our life,” said Dr. Hafer when talking about the long weekend he spent with his wife while they waited to learn more about his diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.

“We sat quietly on the couch and talked and cried. We reviewed our entire 36-year life together, held each other and thought about what this might mean as the next extension of our life. That’s powerful stuff.”

Treatment, they learned, would consist of six weeks of combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy. For Dr. Hafer, who’d practiced for more than 30 years, it was easy to understand the science and the mechanics behind his diagnosis and treatment. But, it took a new perspective to fully appreciate what it meant to be a patient battling a life-threatening disease.

When the doctor becomes the patient

“As a doctor, I don’t think I ever really understood just how important compassionate and personal care is to healing until I actually became a patient,” said Dr. Hafer. He explained how easy it can be for doctors to get into a pattern of simply moving from one patient to the next.

“You think, ‘Well, this patient’s taken care of, let’s move onto the next,’ and you’re off and running on treating the new patient and often forget about the person you just treated four days ago. That was me,” he said. “Thinking like a doctor.”

Doctors sometimes develop a disconnect. “You can’t get too emotionally involved with the patients,” Dr. Hafer explained.

“I used to go into intensive care units and entire families would be sitting, crying as their loved one underwent surgery. It’s an incredibly emotional time for those involved,” said Dr. Hafer. “But, the doctor comes in, sits down, gives the scientific specifics and gets up and walks out. The moment doesn’t really grab the doctor.”

“Let me tell you, as a patient, it’s an entirely different experience.”

When desires change

“After treatment started, I would come home and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep the rest of the day.” This was not normal for Dr. Hafer.

“I’m a very upbeat person and I deal with life’s problems in a very logical way. I just get busy, work harder, put a smile on my face and move forward with a positive outlook. But now, I found myself becoming negative. And all the things I liked to do, I didn’t want to do anymore.”

Dr. Hafer realized how much the cancer treatment was affecting not only his physical health, but his mental health, as well.

“It got to a point where I didn’t recognize myself and my wife didn’t recognize me.”

Dr. Hafer’s experience with pain was also unfamiliar. His radiation oncologist tried to prepare him for the challenging journey ahead. “She looked me straight in the eyes and told me my treatment was going to be very difficult.” Her direct words were powerful and appreciated. “But she couldn’t really know. I couldn’t really know.”

“I had a discussion with my wife about pain. But, I was confident I could handle it. For years, she’d listened to me take calls from patients who told me they couldn’t handle the pain and were looking for a prescription. I would mutter comments to my wife like, ‘No one ever died of pain.’ ” He admits, he lacked understanding. “

Dr. Hafer, the patient, wanted sleep. He needed rest. “I couldn’t sleep with the pain. When the only thing I desired to do was get some rest.”

Finding hope, healing and understanding

Dr. Hafer’s experience with cancer wasn’t without fear, pain, frustration and sadness. But, it also wasn’t without hope.

For Dr. Hafer, hope guided his journey to healing. He found it in support and confidence from his loved ones. He found it in the Psalms his wife read to sooth him to sleep when he needed rest. He found hope in his Christian faith. And he found hope in medicine and in the care he received from cancer care team at Providence St. Patrick Hospital.

“I can’t say enough about the quality and personal care I received,” he said. “I was never a commodity. I was treated as an individual, as a person, as a total being, as someone who has a physical body – and someone who has a soul and spirit.”

It was reassuring to Dr. Hafer to know his team of health care providers was always available. They addressed his physical, mental and spiritual health. He wasn’t simply the patient. “They said, ‘Dr. Hafer, you’re our patient.’ ” And for Dr. Hafer, it was those little moments that had the biggest impact.

“There was a time when I really thought I couldn’t take anymore and I wanted to stop treatment,” he said. “Then the radiation tech said to me, ‘Dr. Hafer, you’re doing so well with this treatment. You really are to be complimented.’ That comment had a great effect on me,” said Dr. Hafer.

Even when things got worse, it was those compassionate moments that helped him make it to the end of treatment. “That morning, she gave me a ray of hope with those few simple words.”

Sharing hope

It’s hope he wants to share with others.

“I want others to know that I’ve been there: when the pain was almost unbearable, when I wanted to give up treatment,” he said. “But, know it will be over. I want others to know they can do it. There is hope.”

“It’s been two years since I finished treatment, and I still think about it. I’m still trying to figure out why I had to go through all this,” he said.

But every once in a while he thinks he’s starting to understand. “Life somehow tends to put an awful lot of dust on the important things, to the point we don’t often see those important things,” said Dr. David Hafer. “We’re always so busy, waking up each morning with a thousand things to do that day. It’s amazing how our challenging trials can change our character and put things in proper perspective.”

“I experienced how medical care should work – needs to work. It needs to be personal, it needs to be compassionate,” he said. No matter how busy things may get for doctors, for patients and for people in our everyday lives. “We always have the time to be personal and compassionate. That’s how love operates.”


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