About a year ago, she was asked to speak to a young woman who refused to accept that her life was limited. Dory Hottensen, a social worker who was there, later recounted how Dr. Pardi sat down and held the woman’s hand.
“I could see that Desiree had an unusual connection with her,” Ms. Hottensen said. Dr. Pardi spoke kindly, and “told her that she was not going to get better. In fact, she was going to die very soon. What did she want for her last days? How did she want to die?”
In her own battle with cancer, however, Dr Pardi chose to pursue every means of aggressive treatment, no matter how futile, up until the very end. When it became apparent that there was nothing more to be offered and doctors broached the possibility of hospice, she vehemently refused to cede the hopelessness of her situation.
A doctor asked if she would like a palliative care consultation. She was shocked; she interpreted the question to mean that she had been identified as someone who was dying, and she did not think of herself that way.
She had crossed to the other side of the mirror, from doctor to patient, and she no longer saw an orderly path to death.
It's easy to sit here and condemn Dr Pardi as a poor soul in denial, as someone who turned her back on the very principles of the field which had made up her life's work. I mean, she counseled patients to accept the inevitability of forthcoming death while refusing to consider the possibility that her own terminal illness had reached a stage of futility. It just doesn't seem very consistent does it?
But I would caution against standing in judgment of this unfortunate woman. We all make a thousand little betrayals to ourselves every week. We all have those grand visions of the Ideal Life we hope to lead. But real life has a way of trashing our best laid plans. We're never as courageous or ethical or as kind as we envision ourselves to be lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling. We fail to live up to our standards. We compromise our goals and aspirations to an alarming degree. I'm not always the father, the husband, the surgeon I aspire to be. We do the best we can but it isn't always easy. Life rarely conforms to the neat little algorithms of personal conduct we've laid out in our minds.
Those who have read this blog for any length of time will know that I am staunchly opposed to absolutism and inflexible ideological fervor. The contingencies and tribulations of life demand a reasonable pragmatism that allows for some flexibility in choosing unexpected pathways. Don't condemn Dr Pardi for turning her back on her life's work when the chips were down and her own life was at stake. Maybe in her own private moral computations it was more honorable to fight her cancer until the very end. She was too young to die. It wasn't fair. Perhaps the bigger betrayal in her mind would have been the acceptance of an arbitrary early death. Who knows. But we owe her the respect and the autonomy to make those tough decisions for herself.