Strength In Vulnerability: How a Terminal Diagnosis Defined My Medical Pursuit

Wiltz Blog 1.png

I remember the last conversation I had with my Uncle Mark before I found out he was sick. 

We were planning a trip to wind surf up and down the Columbia River near Hood River, Oregon, and he was going to help me teach my partner just as he had me taught ten years prior. Imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, I received a phone call from my mother informing me that Mark had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. 

As a first-year medical student in my first semester, it was easy to distance myself as I learned about life-threatening illnesses and the horrors that accompany them… until my own family became affected. 

It doesn’t take a medical degree to know that nothing good comes from a stage four diagnosis. My routine changed drastically. Instead of cramming in the library, my weekend priority became traveling to Hood River to spend time with Mark. We were optimistic at first. He seemed to be responding well to treatment. Oddly, it seemed to bring us closer as a family. On Thanksgiving morning, however, my mom awoke me with unsettling news. 

Mark had been taken to Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and was admitted to the neuro-intensive care unit. He had lost all feeling from his chest down and lost his ability to walk. 

I packed an overnight bag and made my way down to Portland the next morning. I made a pit stop on the way, grabbing a pack of Voodoo Ranger IPA and a bottle of wine for his wife. I knew it was going to be that kind of a visit. 

When I arrived, I couldn’t recognize the man I was looking at. It knocked the wind out of me to walk into his room and see such a frail version of who he was just a couple weeks prior. His response was typical of Mark: a giant smile followed with a joke that only he could get away with sharing. 

I am forever grateful for having the time to make that trip to see him. We spent the entire day together, talking about my wedding and his love for his wife. We shared stories about our family. We talked about our fears. We cried about the possible mortality that seemed to loom over us like a dark rain cloud. Mark was slowly regaining mobility in his legs, but they had found multiple tumors compressing on his spinal cord. What scared him more than anything was that these surgeries were only delaying the inevitable. I had no idea what to do. 

Wiltz Blog 2.png

How do you stay positive when you know someone’s cancer is terminal? 

This became the new normal. I would print out notes and record lectures to bring with me. I would study while Mark slept, ready to pause when he awoke to talk about everything and nothing. Weekends became a finely orchestrated dance of multi-tasking.

I would wake up early and drive to Portland and spend the day in and out of the ICU, finding moments to study in between the periods of calm when Mark was feeling well enough for visitors. Then I’d drive back to Yakima in tears, trying to find the motivation for another long week of lectures as I headed into finals.

My second-to-last visit with Mark was filled with hope. He seemed stable. He was laughing and joking. His spirit seemed lighter than usual. We had a long and painful conversation the night before about what happens after death, but today it was about weddings and a trip I had planned to Guatemala. He told me that he was excited to meet my fiancé and that he couldn’t wait for his son’s wedding, who had just gotten engaged the week before. I left OHSU for the first time feeling somewhat at peace. I was optimistic for a positive turn in his health.

A week later I received a phone call from Michelle, Mark’s wife. It was a grim and brief message. Mark may only have a couple days left, and the doctor told her to notify everyone that now is the time to come visit. I hated being a medical student in that moment. It was almost sickening to be in a situation where my first thought was: “How am I going to study for my finals?” 

Not that this might be the last time I would ever see my uncle.

I made the trip to Portland and one of my classmates made time to come with me. She had downloaded all of the anatomy lectures and we took turns quizzing each other and re-listening to old material throughout the drive. I passed the anatomy final because of her selflessness and kindness. Her presence allowed me to spend those very crucial last 2 hours with my family all together in the same room.

That day has been etched into my memory like a bittersweet tattoo. 

I had never seen my dad cry. I had never seen my grandpa cry. I had never seen so many people crammed into a tiny room in the ICU, tears brimming their eyes. 

It was apparent that we knew the gravity of Mark’s situation before he did. None of us had the heart to break the news when he was sitting in front of us laughing and smiling. When it came time to say goodbye, reality hit me like a wrecking ball. 

I could not stop crying. 

I remember very vividly the confusion that crossed his face as I hugged him goodbye. I was so upset, and he didn’t know why. 

Three days later, Mark passed. His lungs could no longer support him, but he was kept comfortable and Michelle called to tell us that his passing was peaceful. 

I received the call right before our Osteopathic Principles and Practice (OPP) final, dashing to and from the bathroom to hide the fact that I was devastated. It was a relief to see his suffering come to an end, but heart-wrenching to lose a father-figure to such an insidious disease. 

Unfortunately, life doesn’t stop for medical students. 

At the beginning of the school year, during orientation, I specifically remember sitting through a presentation on resiliency and “grit.” At the time I felt invincible; that nothing could knock me down or make me question if I made the right decision by coming to medical school. My first semester at PNWU tested every last shred of motivation to keep fighting for a dream that felt obsolete when my personal life was in shambles. I struggled with caring about my studies. I was angry at the sudden loss of someone I loved; I was stuck in a cycle of “why bother.” I am fortunate that I had a community of friends who were willing to drop what they were doing to share resources and spend time with me. They encouraged me to study when all I wanted to do was crumble. 

I am grateful that I was able to spend those final moments with my family.

As a future physician, tragedy will strike and it will affect me and my family. Through it all, I know that I’ll find the strength to stand back up, put on a brave face and be able to take care of my patients as if nothing is wrong. 

This was an important life lesson, albeit a painful one. As a future physician, tragedy will strike and it will affect me and my family. Through it all, I know that I’ll find the strength to stand back up, put on a brave face and be able to take care of my patients as if nothing is wrong. 

Being vulnerable and asking for help is what made survival possible during my first semester as a medical student. 

Knowing that my uncle was proud of me for becoming a doctor is the fuel that keeps me going on days where I feel like I have nothing left to give. 

Polly Wiltz.jpg

Polly Wiltz

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Polly Wiltz