Working as I do for a cancer research facility, I see a lot of medical charts. Now of course due to confidentiality laws, I cannot actually reveal any information that would identify anyone, or anything about the research itself. But I can say that reviewing those charts (1) quickly instills within one an abiding taste for gallows humor and (2) ordinary people can be and frequently are total heroes and (3) ordinary people can be and frequently are total wackjobs.
There are the chart notes. “Physical exam unremarkable. Patient has no testicles.” I would guess that the fellow in question would not use the term “unremarkable” to describe the state of things. “Pussy wound.” I stared at this for a long time before I realized that “pussy” is perhaps not the best term for “producing pus.” And then there’s the simple mistakes. “Patient suffers from dyspnea. Grade 5.” The first thing you should know is that in the system used to grade toxicities, a grade 5 means it was fatal. The second thing you should know is that dyspnea means “shortness of breath.” I guess your breath doesn’t get much shorter than that.
There is also the treatments themselves, some of which seemed to have been invented purely to test a human’s capacity for mind-shattering horror. One patient I remember evidently wasn’t consented thoroughly enough, or was too flipped out to pay attention to the definition of “intrathecal delivery.” So she was a bit put off when she came to realize on the first day of treatment that it means “a large needle is put into your spinal column.” She politely refused treatment by screaming the medical staff to death. Many patients feel their gumption wane ever so slightly as well when presented with the joyous prospect of a bone marrow biopsy. “Do you mind terribly if we insert this large-bore needle into your (pause for sinister emphasis) pelvic bone? You know, the thick excruciating part. We sometimes have to get a Samoan to jump on it to force it in properly.”
And naturally there’s just the inexplicable. One woman sailed through her diagnosis, agreed to a clinical trial, signed the consent form, and then promptly moved. To Iceland. This was thoroughly successful in terms of putting off treatment. Another dry chart note told the story of a person thusly: “Patient is nonsmoker, nondrinker. Unremarkable exam. Patient occasionally participates in blood sharing rituals.” “Unremarkable” is a favorite term in medical charts. I just guess I don’t know what it actually means.