As someone who loves spending time with kids, I was thrilled when I was placed to volunteer on the 7th floor pediatric oncology inpatient playroom at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Although I was just in high school, I had an early interest in becoming a pediatrician, and Mott seemed like the perfect place for me to learn more.
From talking to teens at their bedside to playing video games or doing arts and crafts with kids, I enjoyed every minute I spent with patients and their families. These activities meant so much more to me as I began to see how integral they were to sustaining children through cancer. These children endure levels of pain that seem unthinkable at such a young age, and I helped them find distractions in board games and plastic food.
With the backdrop of illness, these normal activities were never quite the same. One minute, I was racing trains with a 2 year old. The next, I was gripping his tiny arms and legs to help his nurse draw blood. He put his entire body into his scream, thrashing wildly. But as I held him afterwards, his peaceful demeanor made me realize that I made a difference.
As I spent time with siblings and parents, I witnessed the many ways that cancer permeates the lives of loved ones. As a volunteer, I supported them in any way that I could. I came to believe that talking with kids and families, letting them engage in conversation, to get their mind off things if they so choose or voice their concerns, unleashes the therapeutic nature of the spoken word. From the weather to a child’s prognosis, these conversations illuminated different perspectives of how cancer affects lives. My experiences with these young patients and their families largely contributed to my own desires to devote myself to medicine.
When I started medical school a little over a year ago, I would tell people that I was interested in becoming a pediatric oncologist. Even then, I knew that my interests may change throughout the course of my medical training, but I also knew that this is where my heart was and where it still is, at least for now. Within just a few months, I found myself slowly gravitating towards another discipline that also works closely with children with cancer: the field of palliative care.
Palliative Care aims to improve the quality of life for patients and families, often by alleviating symptom burden, providing pain management, helping with decision-making, and furthering communication about goals of care. Palliative care aligns with many of the aspects of volunteering that were most rewarding for me, as well as my own philosophies about how I hope to practice medicine. From striving to alleviate pain and relieve the suffering that patients experience throughout the course of treatment to engaging in important and intimate conversations with patients and family members about experiences with illness, palliative care prioritizes aspects of medicine that most move me.
Often, these quality of life measures are goals of medicine in general, but to have an entire medical specialty devoted to these important issues has the potential to greatly impact patients, especially those in need. The baby who won’t stop crying from the pain, the teenager who may have wishes that deviate from those of caregivers, the parents who are deciding whether a clinical trial is right for their child—there is no question that cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery can present a series of uncertainties, challenging decisions, unimaginable pain, and life-long symptoms and side effects.
I hope that palliative care training will help me to develop my skills and make a difference in the quality of life experienced by children with cancer. By specializing in both pediatric hematology/oncology as well as in pediatric palliative care, I believe that I will be able to develop a more comprehensive knowledge base and gain experiences to ensure that both perspectives will always inform my care. Palliative care embodies the kind of care that I hope to be able to provide for my own patients and their families some day.
Trisha Paul is a second year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School who graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Honors English. She recently published the book Chronicling Childhood Cancer: A Collection of Personal Stories by Children and Teens with Cancer, and she aspires to become a pediatric oncologist and pediatric palliative care physician. Trisha chronicles her explorations in learning, researching, and teaching about illness narratives at illnessnarratives.com.