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Sometimes we may not see our patients or their family members at their best; especially when fear and the sense of being out of control overwhelms them. Robin Gordon, a Moffitt breast cancer patient and patient advisor, shares how her Moffitt physician was able to respond to her with grace and respect during one such moment.


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Podcast Transcript

LOREEN: Welcome to Pep Talks, a Patient Experience podcast where we share stories of promise, our culture of connection and care.

When our patients are suffering, fearful, and feel like so much in their lives is out of their control, there may be times we don't see them at their best. Showing up with empathy, patience and understanding during those times provides the support our patients need to get them through those tough times.

In this episode of Pep Talks, we hear from Robin Gordon, a Moffit breast cancer survivor and current patient adviser in our Patient and Family Advisory Program. Robin shares how over 20 years later, she still remembers and appreciates how she was provided this grace in one meaningful interaction with her provider and how she chose to pay it forward in her role as a patient advisor.

ROBIN: My name is Robin Gordon, and I was diagnosed at the age of 40. 22 years ago now with breast cancer, it was stage 2B. And I was newly married and had a very active life. I was a professor at USF in the theater department, and so I was very active. I ran occasionally and did yoga and I was on the go at my job day and night, very productive, happy time of my life trying to get pregnant.

And when I was just actually laying in bed one day, I felt a lump in my breast and we were preparing to go on a vacation, actually. And I said, We’ll, look at that when I get back and my husband is a physician, and he said, No, we're going to look at that now. So I had a mammogram and then they instantly sent me for a sonogram. And then afterwards they said, You've got to have a biopsy and you've got to have it tomorrow.

So the doctor who was doing the biopsy, Dr. DuPont, agreed to meet with my husband and me at 730 the next morning, and she was lovely and kind and gentle, and she did the biopsy and then she was showing us the views of the mammogram. They were up on the wall, lit from behind, pointing out things, showing me the calcifications, the spot, blah, blah, blah. And that's when she said, Based on what I see here and based on what I know, you should prepare yourself for a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Now, I consider myself to be a very rational person and a very positive person. But at that moment I just felt this volcano inside and I knew I was going to erupt. And I lashed out at her and I said, Why did you just say that? How can you say that? What kind of doctor are you? I was very rude. I said, You don't know that until we get the biopsy back and I don't know anything. My husband doesn't know anything. You don't know anything. So I just think that I just can't believe you said that to me is so unprofessional.

And even in that moment, I knew it wasn't me. It didn't feel like me. And I regretted it even as it was coming out. But I. I couldn't stop myself. I could not help it.

And to her credit, Dr. DuPont just watched me and looked at me, saw me very gently deflected all that anger which I was hurling at her and somehow looked at me without dismissing me and without reacting to me in an angry way. She just looked very calm and compassionate, and she said, You are right and I will be in touch with you later today. When I look back to it, honestly, she was just doing her job. I mean, she knew what she saw and she was trying to help me.

I didn't see it that way at the time. I think my reaction came from the fact that I was so completely terrified. I was so horrified and scared and I couldn't believe it was happening. And I felt very much out of control of the situation. Looking back on it, I feel like I'm a person who likes to have control over the situation. It probably was the first time because I hadn't had kids yet.

It's probably the first time that I felt totally out of control of the outcome of a situation. And that's horrifying. That's really, really scary. I think back on that a lot and I don't know why because in a way it's such a little thing. It's such a tiny moment. But I know that as people, we react when others lash out at us because we're human. And that, I think, is the natural reaction where you just would be offended or hurt or angry. And she had none of that. I think that's why it stuck with me.

I also realized that as I continued on with my treatment, I often did things to somehow feel like I had control of the situation.

When I met Dr. Cox, who was the surgeon who ended up doing my surgery, he was so busy and fit me in at the last minute. I actually met him 15 minutes before I went under. So I never had a consult with him, but my husband knew of him, wanted him to be my surgeon. So when I went in to meet him, I had a three page letter that I had written because I wanted him to know who I was and and how amazing I was and how much I needed to survive.

Looking back on it, I just can't believe that I was asking this world-renowned surgeon to please do his best. Please have a good day. It's kind of ridiculous, but I just told him I was newly married. I told him I was creative, that I was an athlete, that I just needed I needed to be okay.

As I go through my life over and over again, I do find myself thinking about not being reactive and emotional when I mean, I have kids and I also work as a patient adviser with the Patient and Family Advisory Program. And there have been times. When I've had to deal with angry patients and caregivers one time that I think about a lot stuck with me again.

I was in the waiting room in the breast clinic and I remember there was a man and his wife and he was speaking very loudly here and his voice was raised. He was speaking harshly to the person who was registering them for their appointment. So when they sat down, I went over to see what was going on and this man was very upset with time delays and scheduling conflicts. And his wife, who was the patient, was just sitting very quietly and meekly by his side. And he was very angry and lashing out. And I remember just trying not to be reactive and just let him spew. And I gave him the phone number of patient relations so that he had something concrete in his hands, a way that he could have some control over the situation. And I just remember thinking to myself, this is not about you. It's not about you. This is about him. And when I look back on it, I don't think I had this thought when it was happening. I was just trying to focus on how to behave. But I also know now that when people, especially people who are going through cancer treatment, when they are angry, it's usually because they're trying to take control of a situation they have no control over. And it comes often from a deep deep fear. And I know that he loved his wife, and I think he was very afraid.

And if I can remember that when people are lashing out at me, that usually it comes from some deep place of tremendous fear and feeling out of control, that it gives me the strength to say, This is not about me. I'm not going to react to them, even though I want to as a human, because I understand that fear. I've been there.

 If I had a chance to talk to team members, I would say, Keep doing what you're doing. It's important. The work is really important and you do a great job. As humans, we all are reactive. I know that sometimes patients lash out and yell at you and aren't satisfied or content or comfortable. Just please try to keep in mind that they are fearful they might be in pain. They're uncomfortable, and they feel like they have no control. And sometimes yelling at somebody, even though it's misguided, feels like you have some control over the situation.

So right now, everyone in the whole world is reacting to a lot of crazy dark stuff between COVID and politics and dangerous situations. And that comes into the hospital because they're people and they come into the hospital. We all come every day with part of our outside world.

In this time in particular, I think it is great that we get to practice on a daily basis and I say we because I do feel like part of the team and I'm so proud as a volunteer to feel part of this wonderful team. And we get to practice every day showing compassion to our patients and being able to realize that they're coming from a place where they need to be held, if you will, in an environment that is supportive and compassionate.