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Outside the Lab Clinical care, Profession

The Window of Life

Credit: Gang He.

This is the window of our pathology department’s frozen section room.

Every day, we receive dozens of specimens from surgeons in the middle of operations, requesting a rapid frozen biopsy diagnosis to determine which procedure – if any – should be performed. The reports we send from here determine the fates of patients who are lying on the operating table.

It is a window of life.

Mary – who oversees the administration, registration, and performing of frozen sections and staining slides – sits at the window. One year ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery, followed by a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Consequently, she lost all her hair. I bought her a soft, peasant-style velvet hat with purple flowers. The hat is of a style used specifically for patients undergoing cancer treatment. When I handed it to her, I said, “This is a small token for you. I hope you like it.” She immediately put it on her head, gave me a big hug – and wore the hat until her hair grew back. After a year of treatment, she beat the cancer, finished the unbearable treatment sessions, and began her recovery. Afterward, she came back to work – sitting at the same window and actively serving patients.

Before seven every morning, Mary comes to the frozen section room to get everything ready for the day and makes three big pots of coffee for the doctors to drink during work. After all operating room procedures are done in the afternoon, she wraps up the used coffee grounds and leaves them for me because she knows my wife loves gardening and planting vegetables – and coffee grounds make the best base for composting.

When blooming season arrives, I pick a big bunch of flowers from my garden every Monday and take them to work for Mary. She laughs at the sight of flowers in all their glory and fills two large beakers with water, divides the flowers, and places them on the windowsill. On the first day this happens, the surgeons and nurses who deliver their patients’ specimens are delighted to see them — it makes everyone happy to see them in full bloom after a stressful day in a blood-soaked, life-and-death operating room.

People ask Mary, “Did you grow these flowers?” She says proudly, “Dr. He brought them for me!” When she goes home on Friday afternoon, she carefully binds up the bouquets – still blooming fresh and unwithered – and takes them home. I wish Mary could be so happy every day, enjoying the bright spots in life despite the pain of illness and brutal treatments.

A doctor – whether surgeon, physician, oncologist, or pathologist – should not only treat patients with their skills and knowledge, but also have a warm and sympathetic heart for patients, families, society, and colleagues. Although there are many diseases against which we currently have little power, care and attention will always be an important part of our profession. As the saying goes, “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”

I love to do frozen section diagnoses and I am proud to be a pathologist. We pathologists – the “doctor’s doctors” – do our best to guide surgeons’ hands and give patients hope by making our diagnoses and sending our reports through this window – the window of life. We help and serve patients every day – and to do so is our greatest duty and mission.

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About the Author
Gang He

Consultant pathologist at Harlem Hospital—Columbia University/NYU-LI Long Island Community Hospital, New York, USA.

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