A Psychologist and Her Oncologist

She understands patients must leave doctors, but she will miss her regal oncologist.

by Paula Kaplan-Reiss • More.com Member { View Profile }

“You look beautiful,” he said to me, beaming, as if he took some credit for ‘the vision’ he saw before him. “Just like you looked when you sang for me.” I  smiled up at my oncologist from the examining table, sitting in my paper gown with my full head of short hair. I was nearing the end of more than a year of treatment for breast cancer: biopsies, chemo, major surgery, radiation and regular infusions of an antibody to prevent recurrence. I had not spent the year feeling beautiful.

Four years ago, I was asked to sing for my future doctor at a gala being given in his honor. In addition to being a psychologist by day, someone on the gala committee knew I loved to write and perform song parodies. I would be the surprise entertainment at this black-tie affair to honor a man who not only saved many lives, but also, was philanthropic and caring at the saintly level. While gathering information about Dr. N. to create my song, I learned he was funny and a snappy dresser, and generally adored and revered. I thought to myself, "I don’t know this man, but god forbid I ever need him in my life, he’ll never forget me." So, dressed in my finest, listening to tearful testimonials from patients, and watching him receive an original Peter Maxx painting of him and his wife, I dared to sing for this oncology superstar. I think he loved it.

Last January, sitting in my radiologist’s office following a very unsuccessful mammogram, I knew Dr. N. and I were going to become very well acquainted on a whole new level. It was time to cash in my song parody card.

As an adolescent, I was never enamored of teen idols. I did not hang up posters of Davy Jones or write fan mail to Donny Osmond. My very practical self used to think, "I will never meet this person. He will never know I exist. Why bother?" I cast my sights on the talented but attainable. In my early 20s, I fell in love with and married an artist, a writer and an eventual successful fund raiser, my very own "idol" all rolled into one handsome human being.

But, as much as my husband was going to be able to stand by my side during this ordeal, there was little he was going to be able to do to make me better. I wanted the best. I wanted an oncology superstar.

Scared to death last February, I sat on the examining table, again in the paper gown, and waited for Dr. N to enter the room. “You look familiar,” he said as it dawned on him who I was. He proceeded to examine me and lay out my course of treatment over the next two hours. I was his last patient of the day. Overwhelmed and completely daunted at the end of our visit, I asked, “Am I going to live?”  “Absolutely,” was his confident reply.

Thus truly began our relationship. I felt like I put my life completely in his hands, and, ever the good student, I wanted to please him and succeed. I needed to do everything he said.

As a psychologist for the last 25 years, I am very well aware of the concept of transference. This is the unconscious redirection of feelings from one person (typically a family member from childhood) to another. A positive transference can often help the treatment. Similarly, a good fit is necessary between therapist and client for treatment to proceed in a healthy direction. Clients who come to see me don’t want to think about the client who is coming in for the next appointment or the one who walked out of my office before they came in. They want to feel they are the most important and the only focus of my attention. I am not sure who Dr. N. represented from my past, but I do know we worked well together. And, somehow, he made me feel special. I was realistic enough to know he probably made everyone feel that way. But, still, I was the one who sang for him … before anything was at stake.

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