Written by Erin Santos, Isabella’s Mommy & President of The Isabella Santos Foundation
Why I Loved Him…
I have loved people in my life for a number of reasons. But this love was different than anything I have ever experienced. This love was built out of trust, admiration and hope for saving my child. You would hope that love should flow both ways and for the first time in my life, it didn’t – and I didn’t care.
October 4, 2007, he came into the room and introduced himself. He was 5’9, brown hair and glasses. He wore khaki pants with a rope belt that secured his pants that didn’t fit properly. A green shirt and tie that looked like the type you bought together in a box. His hand extends, “Hi, I will be your daughter’s oncologist. I’m so sorry about the news you received today.” This is the standard greeting they learned to give us during this time of sorrow.
As her treatment started, we saw him regularly. Every time we would come in, he would be waiting on us. “Hi honey,” he would say to her as he placed her hand on her back. I always got a firm handshake and a smile, very serious business. Isabella slowly let down her guard with him and started to feel comforted by his presence.
The days tuned into weeks that turned into months. But through this journey, I was starting to think he had been in our lives forever. He always knew just what to do and when to do it. I trusted him and more importantly, she trusted him. This was the man that was going to save her.
Isabella began to see him as family. She would spend time drawing pictures for him or do craft projects that she would set aside to bring up to the clinic to leave on his desk. My favorite is the picture she drew of the three of us holding hands, some weird new family we had developed into. She began to feel a level of peace with him and she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, if anything… he would make her feel better. We were a team the three of us and I could tell she adored him.
I began to trust no one or no treatment plan unless he was behind it. New York would pass down instructions of what we were to do. None of it would start until I talked to him and had his blessing. “Do you think this is the right thing to do? What would you do if you were me? How do you think the cancer will react?” I was grasping for his approval and sign-off at every turn. I engulfed myself in learning every piece of her treatment plan and could rattle off blood count numbers or medicine doses without even thinking about it. I yearned for him to know that I was knowledgeable about what was happening because in my mind I told myself that it would somehow give us an edge.
I even changed my appearance in a way that showed that I was “put together”. I’m not one of those moms who sulked around in sweatpants with no make up on. I was in better than those moms. I had my shit together. When he would come on rounds, I found myself being nervous or posing when he was in the room to seem unnerved by him or what he was telling me. I wanted him to trust the decisions that I was making just as much as I trusted his. I wanted him to think that I was more than capable to act when it came to her care than these other moms.
After years of working side by side in her journey, I started to know his footsteps coming down the hall. She and I could feel his presence before he even arrived. And I began to know the look on his face or the tone in his voice that would tell me that we were safe or we were in trouble before the news even hit.
Even when the news was bad, is still wasn’t as bad because it was coming from him. I could take it because I knew that he had a plan and he was going to try to save her until the end. He wasn’t going to let her fall through the cracks after all these years of trying to save her together.
When we reached the point of making the hard decisions, I felt that he and I would come up with a plan on what was best for her. He and I were determining her fate. My husband who left the primary care up to me would often get second hand knowledge of the plan that he and I already determined. It would be positioned in a way that always made him feel that he was a part of the decision. But I know that our decision had been made earlier in the day between the two of us.
I always knew in the back of my head at some point that she was going to die. People would tell me that she is going to be the one to beat it. But, I knew that she wasn’t. It was just a matter of time and options, and our options were running out. I couldn’t imagine what the dying process was going to be like for her. I just knew that we would somehow all figure it out together. He would walk along side our family, holding her hand across this invisible line, making sure that it ended with him just as it began. But, as always in cancer – things never happen the way you want them to.
The call we got from him in June 2012 that revealed the cancer had spread to her bones was the last time I spoke with him before she died. Due to unforeseen family circumstances, he was not available to us the last month of her life. We received no call, no card in the mail. I couldn’t understand him not being a part of this process in the end. This was his child too and she had fallen through the cracks and was dying without him.
The next time I saw him was at her funeral. I saw him out of the corner of my eye shaking my husband’s hand. I wondered what typical doctor response he was giving him that he learned after all these years of losing children.
I waited for him to come over to me. I felt sweat start to form out of every pore on my body. What would he say to me? I wanted to hug him and sob over our failure and have him reassure that we tried everything we could possibly do together to save her.
Instead, he shook my hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
And in that moment I realized. The love I had for this man was one-sided. She wasn’t his child that he was trying to save alongside me. She was his patient. I was her Mother. He is a doctor and this is the business he is in. His handshake was firm, but it told me everything I needed to know. I tell myself that it would be completely unprofessional for him to hug me and cry. All the years of mentoring in his position must of told him to compartmentalize these situations or you will go down in the flames of depression each time you lose a child. But, I swore that she wasn’t just a child to him, she was different.
I couldn’t see him for a couple of years without going into a full-blown anxiety attack. I could feel tears forming and my stomach would be sick when I saw him coming over. It was unfair of me to put him on that pedestal if he were the God that was going to save her. I always craved that conversation that I wanted in the end. But that conversation never came… and I finally began to see him for who he really was…just her doctor.
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