We recently got off the train after 18 chemo treatments, pulling into Remission Junction with the hope it will be a long stay. Many got off in good spirits as an unfortunate few were boarding the train, desperately hoping to return.
It was like a graduation ceremony as care providers greeted and congratulated those disembarking. A few tears were shed, testimony to the warm bond that develops between the sick and the dedicated group that looked after them on the journey.
There were smiles, hugs, and presents to mark a not-so-small victory. Staff and patients get to know each other on this train. The understanding and compassion of those who run it help to allay the fears and ease the pain of a wide array of passengers.
My wife was a ticket holder and I was along for the ride aboard the No. 9 Train on the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) line. We both found the journey difficult but rewarding. Julie the infusion nurse, Marty the survivor/volunteer, and Leo and Linda at the front desk were just a few of the staff who worked to ease the hardships of the reluctant travelers. Confronting fear with hope, sorrow with comfort, and despair with encouragement, they make the burdens manageable.
The disease strips away thoughts of much that is superficial – the desire for wealth, power, and acclaim. Instead, the passengers embrace things of greater value – love, family, humility, courage, and grace under pressure. How one is sick is probably a far more honest version of oneself than how one is healthy. There is no place for posturing when among the seriously ill.
Someone once observed: “Service to others is the rent we pay to live on earth.” Health care is the most direct of the service occupations, which also include teaching, social work, and spiritual guidance. Other occupations, like politics, may offer the promise of helping others, but too often they are subverted by ambition, power, hubris, and greed.
Would it be too much to ask policymakers to uphold both the Constitution and the common good? Perhaps swearing to love thy neighbor might provoke a more enlightened response to the many of the problems that beset us. It might even reduce the level of partisan bickering that renders Congress so dysfunctional.
Where is love in our obsession with guns? Where is it in failing to provide healthcare to everyone? Where is it in the economic inequality now so evident? Where is it in discrimination and bullying? Where is it in video games, violent movies, or the accumulation of things?
Love is central to the messages of Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and, thankfully, Pope Francis. You find it in families, hospitals, churches, schools, and in the many acts of kindness of ordinary people.
There is more love, honesty and transparency on a cancer train then in the halls of Congress. Ideology is of little concern to the travelers or their care-givers. The simple yet beautiful act of caring for someone in distress is not a theory but a reality that must be confronted every day.
There is no “kicking the can down the road.” The need is now, the consequences imminent. I learned a lot on the cancer train, lessons not often found on more pleasant excursions. In many ways it was an uplifting experience to see how we can care for each other when it matters.
In the words of a now deceased cancer patient:
“This is as good a place as any
To cling to life.
Nobody wears their wigs here;
Just baseball caps or stocking hats.
All the externals have fallen away.
Each face a star.
Shining brightly, blessedly
Through the encroaching darkness.”
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.