Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Good Doctor

In the weeks since I finished my reporting and began writing this story, one image has stuck with me: a drawerful of letters. The letters belong to Eric Winer, a 47-year-old physician at Dana-Farber. He and I had been talking for close to an hour when he showed me the drawer. It was late on a Friday evening, and Winer, still in the clinic, was describing the progress we were making in this war, his reedy voice cracking higher every so often. He was telling me of his optimism. That's when he mentioned the drawer: "That enthusiasm is very much tempered by the fact that we have 40,000 women dying of breast cancer every year. Um, and you know, I've got a file full of letters that are almost entirely from family members of my patients who died...." I asked to see it, and then asked again, and there it was, in the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet—two overstuffed folders of mostly handwritten notes. Once the letters go in, Winer confessed, he never looks at them again. "I don't go back," he said sheepishly. "My excuse initially was that if anyone wanted to say I was a bad doctor, I'd hold on to these things that people said about me. And I could prove that I wasn't." If the walls of his office are any indication, there is no way Winer is a bad doctor. They are covered with loving mementos from patients. There is a picture of Tolstoy from a woman whose breast tumors were initially shrunk by Herceptin, but who died within five years. (Winer had once mentioned to her to that he had majored in Russian history at Yale.) There's a photo of the Grand Canyon taken by a young nurse who was determined to take a trip out West with her 10-year-old son before she died. The daughter of another patient even cornered Lance Armstrong and begged him to sign a neon-yellow jersey for Winer, who is an avid cyclist. It is the most prominent thing in his office. No, it isn't just the patients in this War on Cancer who need renewed hope. It is the foot soldiers as well.

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