dr. bernstein

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Dr. Joel Bernstein is my doctor. My oncologist. He has walked with me every step of my cancer journey, encouraging me, inspiring me and healing me.  I could say that he saved my life, and that would not be a stretch. Throughout my cancer journey, Dr. Bernstein has always been one step ahead of everyone- up on the latest research, proactive with tests and my medication, and confidently able to adjust and attack when surprises came up.

And today I found out that he died. From cancer.

Last July when he told me he was closing his practice because of a health issue, I wish I had known how serious it was. The suddenness of his news then and the self-centered thoughts that went through my head at the time- who will be my doctor now? who will know my story as well as he does? – clouded my head and kept me from asking him more. I also wanted to respect his privacy. And I think I was afraid. Afraid that the man who was so smart- brilliant actually- and so very kind, and a superhero in my eyes- might actually be human enough to succumb to the deadly disease.

And I think now, if I had known then that would be the last time I would see him, what would I have said to him?

I would have told him that the first time Todd and I met him and sat in his office to discuss a treatment plan, I knew immediately he was the right doctor for me.

I would have told him that each time I walked into his slightly messy and disorganized office, I felt right at home.

I would have told him that I loved all the pictures and figurines of black labs all over his exam room- it showed his playful personality, expressed his love for his dogs, and made his office feel like a home.

I would have told him that the very casual, laid-back atmosphere in his office was a peaceful relief from the chaotic, confusing and stressful world of cancer treatment.

I would have told him that the girls who worked in his office felt like family, not staff.

I would have told him that each time he walked into the exam room, his smiling eyes and kind grin always put me at ease.

I would have told him that he always looked like he had a secret that he wanted to share- like the cat who swallowed the canary.

I would have told him that in a strange way, I looked forward to my chemo treatments- because I felt confident in Dr. Bernstein’s presence and his plan, knowing I was one step closer to beating the cancer.

I would have told him that I think oncology doctors are angels, given to us by God to heal, to comfort, to bring hope in the midst of despair, and compassion in the midst of pain. To strengthen the survivors and help others die with dignity.

I would have told him that I trusted him with my life. Completely.

I would have told him that I am forever grateful for the way he cared for me, for the ways he healed me and believed in my recovery.

I would have told him I loved him.

What a cruel joke life has played- a man who spent his entire career fiercely fighting cancer and saving the lives of thousands ultimately lost the battle himself to the nasty disease.

As one of the many patients whose lives he touched, my story is intricately woven with his. Now that he is gone, a part of me feels gone, too. There is a beautiful relationship that can develop between a doctor and a patient over time. One that starts in fear and confusion, is built on honesty and vulnerability, and grows in trust and love. For the past four years, my frequent visits with Dr. Bernstein have been a regular part of my life, and I am thankful for them, for his influence in my life and how he helped me believe I could conquer whatever cancer tried to do to me.

God bless you, Dr. Bernstein. You have left a legacy of thousands of grateful patients, friends and colleagues, who are better for having known you.

I will miss you.

packing up christmas

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Yesterday I put the Christmas decorations away.

I’ve always enjoyed the process of unpacking each item- like opening a gift- and then at the end of the season packing them up again- like tucking them into bed.  Most of our decorations and ornaments are unique mementos from loved ones and vacations, marking a special time in our lives. And as the mom in the family, I know where each trinket came from and the significance of each ornament.

I never used to give that much thought.

But in 2011, when I first found out I was sick with cancer, one of my early thoughts (and fears) was if I died, no one would know the history of our Christmas decorations. That may sound silly, but our family’s story is wrapped up in our holiday treasures. I needed to know that my kids would know our story, and be able to pass it on someday.

So I’ve begun to label some of the items and, more importantly, share with my family the stories behind each ornament and each decoration. And as I share the history with my kids, the memories come alive.

We remember and warmly talk about Uncle Tom (Todd’s oldest brother) when we set out all the old world Santas that he collected before he passed away. We carefully handle the hand-painted glass ornament Todd and I bought on our trip to Austria in 1994 and the ruby red slipper ornament Papa gave Katie the year she was Dorothy for Halloween. We lovingly put out the Hummel nativity that my mom gave us- piece by piece over the course of many years, and smile at the broken head of one of the kings (oops!). Seeing my grandmother’s antique plastic reindeer sitting on my kitchen window sill brings her memory close to me. And we see how our family has grown over the years in the kids’ handmade ornaments that hang on our tree.

Having had cancer (more than once), I don’t take time for granted. It’s precious and it’s fleeting and it can be unpredictable. And as I put each decoration back in its box yesterday, I wondered what my life will be like a year from now, when I take them out again.

This past year held surprises that I could not have imagined last Christmas: recording an album, singing with an orchestra and a full choir, leading a new service at church, my dad having to endure two back surgeries… And I wonder- with some anticipation and also with some trepidation- what this coming year will bring.

I just don’t know. None of us really do.

But I do know that God is good and he is faithful- he promises to work all things together for my good, and he promises to be with me always.

And I want that to be enough for me.

So I hold out my hand to the One I trust to guide me and lead me through it all. I know that whatever sharp turns life may take this year, I am secure in the love and comfort of my Shepherd, who is all I need.