Cancer Gets Personal When Doctor Becomes the Patient
In her 22 years as an emergency medicine physician in Lexington Medical Center’s Emergency department, Debbie Simpson, MD, has seen it all.
“I’ve seen a lot of people go through a lot of things. It makes you appreciate the priorities in life,” she said.
As part of her job, Dr. Simpson refers patients who need follow-up care to other doctors after they leave the ER. That’s how she first crossed paths with Steve Madden, MD, oncologist with Lexington Oncology, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice.
“Debbie would call me about admitting cancer patients to the hospital from the ER,” Dr. Madden said.
While Dr. Madden has become accustomed to Dr. Simpson’s referrals over the years, there was no way he could have imagined that this healthy, energetic woman would be calling his office on behalf of herself.
That’s because Dr. Simpson was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. The woman who was used to giving life-saving care to patients for more than two decades in the ER was now the one who needed help.
“I didn’t wear my hospital badge when I visited the doctor, or waited for this test or that test,” Dr. Simpson said. Instead, she simply tried to be a patient. “It made me appreciate everything all of our patients go through when we send them for tests.”
Scans and biopsies revealed that Dr. Simpson had two tumors, but her health problems didn’t stop there. Dr. Madden did additional testing to make sure they had a full picture of what was going on inside Dr. Simpson’s body. That’s when he discovered that she also had renal cancer.
Over the next year, Dr. Simpson underwent multiple surgeries including a lumpectomy, a hysterectomy and kidney removal. After all of that, Dr. Simpson endured chemotherapy and radiation.
“She never complained,” Dr. Madden said. “It’s her faith, really. She is solid.”
It wasn’t always easy, but Simpson finished her last radiation treatment over a year ago. Her hair returned after she lost it during chemotherapy, and her long-term prognosis is good. In true Dr. Simpson form, she prefers to focus on the positive side.
“Being a mother makes me a better doctor,” she said. “Life experiences make me a better doctor. My husband died of a heart attack at 42; that was almost 11 years ago. I feel like these things shape you, then you can relate to what your patients and their families are feeling,” Dr. Simpson said.
Ideally, Dr. Madden would like to see all of his patients get to spend more time with their families. He’d like parents to see their sons or daughters get married or their children graduate from college.
“You don’t treat the disease; you treat the whole person,” Dr. Madden said.
In this age of computers and technology, he has made it his mission to keep the personal part of medicine front and center.
“That’s a blessing I get from the patient. It’s a two-way street. They appreciate us helping and all of that, but everyday, someone says something that lifts me,” Dr. Madden said. “We are definitely in this fight together.”