Dr Andrew Na, emergency physician at Coffs Harbour hospital, is experiencing life on the other side of the stethoscope as a patient at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse cancer treatment and research hospital.
He says that the practical experience of being on the receiving end of treatment has given him deeper insight into being a patient.
“It’s been a very interesting and humbling experience, going from being a health provider to a patient. As a patient you lose your independence, your security and your confidence and you are vulnerable—you are at the mercy of your healthcare provider,” says Andrew.
After a gastroscopy to investigate worsening symptoms Andrew was diagnosed with gastric cancer. He wasn’t expecting this, thinking he had a stomach ulcer.
“I was devastated. It was totally left field. Sure, you have a question mark over whether it could be something nasty but I really didn’t think it was cancer. It really floored me,” says Andrew.
Stomach cancer makes up 2% of cancer cases in men and 1.4% of cancer cases in women. The average age that people are diagnosed with stomach cancer is 71.
The diagnosis has changed Andrew’s perspective on life.
“All those things that you held dear or that you thought were important really become secondary. Things that you’ve had all along but that you’ve never really acknowledged become primary—things like the relationship you have with your family and seeing your kids smiling, simple things like that.”
“Little things like the wildflowers growing along footpaths have become more noticeable. Whereas before I would just jog past and wouldn’t appreciate them now I take the time and I think, ‘Wow, that’s great; it’s nature’s creation and it’s full of beauty.’ Time slows down and you get to appreciate the simple things,” says Andrew.
Andrew’s focus and his reason for going through cancer surgery and chemotherapy is his family—his wife and two boys, aged 17 and 11.
As a doctor going through the experience of being a patient, Andrew’s story parallels that of Prof Chris O’Brien, the inspiration behind Lifehouse.
“It’s a very lonely journey, and unless you’ve travelled it I think you have only a limited understanding of what patients go through. I knew that Prof Chris O’Brien was a head and neck surgeon, and now I can appreciate what he would have gone through as a patient. I feel privileged to be in this situation to understand what it’s like being a patient, and it will certainly enhance my practice and my approach to patients in the future.”