My third story could have been written early on in my cancer experience at Duke. It is something I took note of from the very first visit, though other thoughts soon began pressing in (such as questions and concerns about what course my treatment would take, what was my prognosis, etc.).
Nevertheless, my thoughts returned frequently to what I observed early on at DCC—the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of people involved with cancer, whether they were patients, caretakers, doctors, PA’s, nurses, receptionists, technicians, or any of the other miscellaneous (and necessary) staff members who work diligently to create a safe, healthy, and healing place for those of us who need just that.
As I said, I thought about this on our first visit to DCC, which was in early February (keep this timing in mind). On our second visit, about a week later, while Sue and I were sitting in the waiting room, we ended up having a brief, pleasant interaction with a woman sitting across from us. It turned out she was there waiting for her husband, who was having an annual check-up with his oncologist. She said he had been doing really well, and they were expecting a good report. As we talked further, we discovered that she lived down in our area of southeastern NC, and we all said how the drive to Durham, though a little long, was worth it.
Later on that day, after my appointment, Sue and I were sitting in the small outer lobby, waiting for our car (we had used the valet parking option at DCC), and it just happened that the same woman was sitting there, waiting for her husband, who had gone to get their car. We nodded greetings, and Sue sat down beside the woman. It was cold in the outer lobby, so I went inside to get warm, but I noticed that Sue and the woman were having a conversation. Eventually the woman left when her husband drove up, and then when our car arrived, I went outside and joined Sue.
As we were getting settled in the car, Sue told me what the woman had said to her. I’ll try to paraphrase it here. She said: Look around at all these people, all these different kinds of people, people from everywhere. We’re all here for the same reason, with the same concerns. These days it seems like all you hear is who’s in and who’s out, who deserves to be here and who doesn’t, who counts and who doesn’t count. Cancer doesn’t care who you are. We’re all the same, and we’re all hoping for the same thing. Cancer is the great leveler.
When Sue told me this, I burst into tears and I wanted to run and find that woman and hug her. I knew just what she meant, and I so appreciated her saying that, most especially at that moment, not just in my life, but in the life of this country. At a time when there is so much that seems to divide us, and so many people ready to widen those divisions, a voice that speaks for unity and common purpose is a healing balm. I didn’t expect to hear it at the Cancer Center, and it meant a lot to me that day, and afterwards.
There is something else I want to say about diversity and Duke. You’re probably familiar with those questionnaires that you get after certain medical appointments, where the doctor or the clinic or the hospital asks you to rate your experience according to a variety of criteria. I received numerous surveys from Duke, and I recall quite clearly the first one I got. As I read down the page, answering the questions, I got to one that I hadn’t encountered before: “(Rate) how well the staff respected your sexual orientation/gender identity”.
This one stopped me in my tracks. It’s the first time I had encountered a direct question on this topic. And it wasn’t there just on my questionnaire, but on everybody’s questionnaire. Fortunately I could answer that question honestly, and favorably. Neither Sue nor I encountered any problems or sideways glances or inappropriate references. Sue was welcomed and acknowledged and included—and appreciated—every step of the way.
That question meant a great deal to me. It spoke to me of an institution that is determined to treat everyone with dignity. And it sent that message not just to me, but to everyone given a questionnaire, including many who may never have given a thought to the non-heterosexual experience in the dominant culture. (And the inclusion of “gender identity” opens yet another door unfamiliar to many people.)
During all these months, the cancer months, I interacted with and was attended to by people of many different nationalities and races, colors and languages, and, I would assume, different sexual preferences and religions and origin stories (though obviously you don’t normally become familiar with all the particulars of any one person’s background). It was like being at the UN of Medicine, and it was notable in that it actually seemed totally unremarkable. After all, what joined us together was the mission of the place. And we are all far more similar than we are different, joined in a common desire to live and be well.