NDJ:3 Dolores McCarthy, PhD


The last time I saw Dr. Petrek was on the ten year anniversary of my treatment for breast cancer. Looking at me with her broad smile, crinkly red hair and funky eyeglasses, she beamed and said: “You’re doing great! You’ll probably live a long life!!”

When I went for my checkup the next year, Dr. Petrek was dead. How could this be? Was it true? My healer from breast cancer, the same age as me, was gone and I was going on in good health?

It was in the New York Times that month. “Renowned Breast Cancer Surgeon Dies in Accident.” Jeanne Petrek, M.D., chief of breast surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, was killed in a freak accident on her way to work, hit by an ambulance (of all things!) as she crossed the street in front of the hospital. Construction workers on the street rushed to pull her body from under the ambulance. Apparently, the driver was blinded by the sunlight and did not see Jeanne crossing the street. I think about that driver, too, how she is an unfortunate player in this nightmare.

Dr. Petrek was a young woman, in her mid 50’s and a pioneer in her work. She and her husband raised two children, one who had a disability. Jeanne had a surprisingly personal interest in her patients. Her specialty was in cancer in younger women; she studied options for pregnancy after breast cancer treatment. Since I was an adoptive parent, Jeanne asked my opinions to help her counsel her own patients. She was the only person who sent me a note when I completed my PhD, congratulating me on my success. She hand picked Dr. Surbone to be my oncologist. “I think you two will like each other”, Jeanne suggested. And, as usual, she was on target. Antonella Surbone was an amazing young, attractive physician from Italy who was completing her own Ph.D, in philosophy while I was working on mine in psychology. I actually looked forward to chemotherapy appointments because we compared notes on our dissertation progress!

Anne Walsh, Dr. Petrek’s nurse, cried with me at my next visit: “I remember how Jeanne used to say to her patients: Don’t get so worried about cancer! You could get hit by a car when you leave your appointment!” I then pictured Jeanne’s face before I had surgery, looking at her diamond earrings and complimenting them. I wondered, strangely about her appearance after the accident when they took her to the own emergency room for useless treatment. Her injuries were too extensive; she died in surgery, where she herself had saved so many lives.

I met the new physician who took over Jeanne’s cases. She was an even younger physician (how could that be?) who had done her training with Dr. Petrek. I said “You know you must carry on Dr. Petrek’s work. She is not gone, she is living in you.” She looked knowingly at me.

The irony and message of this story is obvious. It has the perfect existential pitch, speaking to Dr. Petrek’s love of life and to the value of life itself. And, as I reflect two years later, I realize she is in me, too.