BEFORE I DELIVER A DIFFICULT DIAGNOSIS TO A PATIENT, I try to take a moment to remind myself: “You could be in their shoes.”
After all, I have been.
Three times in my life, a doctor has told me that I have cancer. The news is never easy to absorb. But when it is given with the proper dose of empathy and compassion, a life-changing diagnosis is digested more easily, knowing that the person on the other end truly cares about the outcome. My journey from cancer patient to physician has taught me about both sides of health care and, I hope, will serve as a resource to those receiving treatment as well as to those providing it.
I grew up in Westwood and was 9 years old when my parents took me to an ophthalmologist at the UCLA Stein Eye Institute with what they thought was an eye infection. Instead, doctors discovered I had rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare skeletal-muscle tumor behind my right eye. The tumor was too close to my brain to risk an operation, and I was too young to understand the seriousness of the situation. I received radiation and chemotherapy treatment at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), and the cancer went into remission, but I permanently lost vision in my right eye and hearing in my right ear.
Life took another twist during my freshman year of high school, when a routine checkup with my oncologist revealed that I had acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It was hard to comprehend going through chemotherapy again, and, naturally, you ask questions like, “Why me?” The mental hurdles often proved just as tough to clear as the physical ones. The support of my family, friends and health care team helped get me through more than a year of chemotherapy cycles and hospital stays.
After being sick, you would think I would get disgusted by the medical field, by always being in the hospital. But, after that, I wanted to be a doctor. Healthy again, I earned my undergraduate degree in psychobiology at UCLA and entered the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. I was studying for the Step 1 exam near the end of my second year, in May 2011, when I progressively became more and more ill — first a sore throat, then a sinus infection, then bronchitis, then pneumonia. While I was at a party with friends, I suddenly felt extremely short of breath. I had a bad feeling in my gut; I thought, maybe I’m sick again.
A blood test confirmed what I had dreaded: At age 23, the leukemia had returned. My doctor at CHLA immediately told me I was too old to receive care at Children’s Hospital, sending me into a panic. I remember getting angry and grabbing his suit jacket, saying, “I have to stay here!” In hindsight, all I needed was more time to process the information and ask questions — a guideline I hope every physician follows.
The cancer retreated after one round of chemo at City of Hope in Duarte, but my doctor warned that if the cancer recurred, it could resist chemo treatment, and he recommended a more permanent solution: a bone marrow transplant. Shortly after, a donor registry found a match on the other side of the world. Peter Entz, a 59-year-old German man, had registered years earlier during a local donor drive to save a young man in his tiny town of Bad Lippspringe. He agreed to donate his bone marrow and was told only that it was for a person living in the United States.
I developed graft-versus-host disease, or GVHD, when the donor’s immune cells mistakenly attacked my healthy cells. I remained isolated for months in a special unit of the hospital, and I needed regular blood, platelet and electrolyte transfusions. Visitors had to wear full body gowns to see me. Even now, getting around can be a struggle, as movement in my extremities is restricted, and I have necrosis in my hips, which will eventually require surgery. Unfortunately, my favorite food — sushi — is off the menu.
Two years after my lifesaving bone marrow transplant, my family contacted Entz. My mother called — it was around 3 pm here, and Germany is nine hours ahead, so it was midnight there — and when he answered, he barely spoke English. My mom was saying into the phone, “Bone marrow donation! America! USA! USA!” We invited him and his daughter and her boyfriend to Los Angeles to share our Passover seder. They stayed with us for two weeks, soaking in the Southern California sites, and our families remain friends to this day.
My journey has given me a greater understanding of what patients and their families go through. Some patients have a lot of support and deal with their situation fine. Others might have to cope with things on their own. Regardless, there is no easy road to recovery. I have been on both sides, and I try to share parts of my own story when needed to give patients more faith, hope and optimism. If another doctor is struggling to relate to a patient, I might share an anecdote or hint at ways to be more empathetic. Often, as I experienced firsthand, small steps can make a big difference in a patient’s life.
At the age of 9, doctors discover rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare skeletal-muscle tumor behind Hebroni’s right eye.
At age 14, a routine checkup with his oncologist reveales that Hebroni has acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Hebroni earns his undergraduate degree in psychobiology at UCLA and enters the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
A blood test confirms what Hebroni has dreaded: At age 23, the leukemia had returned.
The cancer retreats after one round of chemo, but with the chance it could return, a bone marrow transplant is recommended as a more permanent solution.
A donor registry finds a match, Peter Entz, a 59-year-old German man, on the other side of the world.
Hebroni returns to medical school in July.
Two years after his lifesaving bone marrow transplant, Hebroni and his family invite Entz, his daughter and her boyfriend to Los Angeles to share their Passover seder. Their families remain friends to this day.