An expression of gratitude

Dr Keith Waters and Dr Karin Tiedemann at their retirement dinner last week with Dr Peter Downie.
Dr Keith Waters and Dr Karin Tiedemann at their retirement dinner last week with Dr Peter Downie.

“You don’t hate me do you?”

I was shocked by the question.

“No way! You and the people here saved my life!”Did this gentle man really think that the children he’d operated on had gone through life hating him? I have been very moved by this thought and am grateful that last night I had the opportunity to assure him otherwise.

Last night was surreal, but wonderful. Nearly 200 people attended the retirement dinner for Dr Karin Tiedemann and Dr Keith Waters, who between them have served 77 years as oncologists in the Children’s Cancer Centre / Haem-Onc Department, at The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) in Melbourne. It is the end of an era. The speeches told of the days through the 70’s when most children with cancer died.  We heard how Dr Waters was instrumental in designing and driving the first clinical protocols at the hospital for treatment of children with acute leukaemia, and the refinement and development of these over the years, both at the national and international level, such that most children diagnosed with leukaemia these days survive. We heard how Dr Tiedemann was sent to the library to learn how to perform a bone marrow transplant and then pioneered and established a bone marrow transplant program at the RCH. She was pivotal in creating a cord blood bank at the RCH and has performed hundreds of bone marrow and cord blood transplants for children with leukaemia and other blood disorders. Between them, Drs Tiedemann and Waters have saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of children. I’m one of them.

At the dinner last night were the three oncologists who together oversaw my treatment for osteosarcoma, a highly malignant form of bone cancer. Diagnosed on the eve of 1980, at the age of 15, the only form of treatment for such an aggressive type of cancer was an  amputation followed by 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy.  The introduction of chemotherapy several years prior to this had seen the survival rate for this type of cancer jump from 5% to 60%. I underwent an above-knee amputation of my left leg on January 2nd 1980 and a few days later commenced the first of twenty-something cycles of chemotherapy.  Dr Waters, Dr Tiedemann and Dr Henry Ekert were my doctors, overseeing all aspects of my treatment. Thirty-four years later, at this beautiful dinner, I was reminded how privileged I am to have been treated by the best.

Also at the dinner were two of my amazing nurses, Mary McGowan and Dave Sutton, both of whom have different roles now within the hospital, but are still there.  Throughout the many months on the cancer ward they brightened my days and joked with me and made me feel I was amongst family.

Between courses at the dinner I overheard someone say, “There’s Bob Dickens”. I looked and sure enough, there was the surgeon who had performed my amputation 34 years ago! I had not seen him for well over 30 years. I chased after him and started to introduce myself and he said “You’re Ngaire! Wow, this is amazing”.  He asked after my parents, and especially my mother, who had obviously made quite an impression as he dealt her the blow of removing the leg of her sporty, active teenage daughter. He reminded me of the poem I had written shortly after my amputation describing the phantom pain; a poem which Dr Ekert submitted to the Medical Journal of Australia – my first scientific publication at the age of 15!  This incredible surgeon appeared so humble and insisted on a photo and, as we both fumbled around with our smart phones in sub-optimal light, asked me all about myself. He seemed delighted to hear about my three boys and the life I’ve had, and the fact that I work at the RCH as Director of the very cord blood bank that Dr Tiedemann helped to establish during the 90’s.  As the main course was served and our animated conversation drew to a close he said, “You don’t hate me do you?” My immediate reply; “No way! You and the people here saved my life!” His question played through my mind on the long moonlit drive home.

How could I feel anything but gratitude for he and the other staff who treated and cared for me those many years ago? They saved my life. Of course it was traumatic, and hard and an experience that no child or adult wants to have, but it is thanks to them that I am still here. I’m having an amazing life. I’ve travelled extensively, I’ve married and have three children, I’m loved and have an enormous network of family and friends whom I love in return, I live in a beautiful part of the world, I’ve studied and worked and have a career that makes a difference and brings personal satisfaction. What more could anyone wish for in life? Ok, so I’ve had a bit of breast cancer recently, but how fortunate am I to have lived long enough to develop a second type of cancer. So, NO, Mr Dickens, I do not hate you or your colleagues who have devoted their lives to curing children of their cancer.  My heart is full to bursting with gratitude and love for the surgeons, oncologists, nurses and allied health staff at the RCH who are part of my life story. Thank you.

– Dr Ngaire Elwood

Ngaire is Director of the BMDI Cord Blood Bank and Head of the Cord Blood Stem Cell Research Program, Early Disease and Development.

This piece was originally published on Ngaire’s blog Things I Have Learnt Today

The Phantom Leg

The phantom leg reveals its name

By prickling the senses with tingling pain,

It clenches its toes and itches its heel,

Sending shivers of cold for the brain to feel.

Well, how does the brain know the leg isn’t there?

The limb may be gone but the nerves aren’t aware.

The knee gets an itch and you go to scratch,

Only to be met by a great airy patch.

When you need to rub the phantom shin,

There’s naught to be done but sit there and grin.

Soon the tingles ‘ll move elsewhere down the line,

And the ball on your foot soon gets the sign.

You move your leg about and around,

But Alas! There’s no mate nearby to be found.

But, it’s there in its spirit and it makes itself known

By the tingles and itches which haunt its old home.

Poem written by Ngaire, aged 15 years, 1980.

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