By the time she was 38, Dr. Desiree Pardi had become a leading practitioner in palliative care, one of the fastest-growing fields in medicine, counseling terminally ill patients on their choices.
She preached the gentle gospel of her profession, persuading patients to confront their illnesses and get their affairs in order and, above all, ensuring that their last weeks were not spent in unbearable pain. She was convinced that her own experience as a cancer survivor — the disease was first diagnosed when she was 31 — made her perfect for the job.
In 2008, while on vacation in Boston, she went to an emergency room with a fever. The next day, as the doctors began to understand the extent of her underlying cancer, "they asked me if I wanted palliative care to come and see me."
She angrily refused. She had been telling other people to let go. But faced with that thought herself, at the age of 40, she wanted to fight on.
While she and her colleagues had been trained to talk about accepting death, and making it as comfortable as possible, she wanted to try treatments even if they were painful and offered only a 2 percent chance of survival. When the usual cycles of chemotherapy failed to slow the cancer, she found a doctor who would bombard her with more. She force-fed herself through a catheter and drank heavy milkshakes to keep up her weight.
Over the last decade, palliative care has become standard practice in hospitals across the country. Born out of a backlash against the highly medicalized death that had become prevalent in American hospitals, it stresses the relief of pain; thinking realistically about goals; and recognizing that, after a certain point, aggressive treatment may prevent patients from enjoying what life they had left.
Dr. Pardi had gone into the field because she thought her experience as a patient would make her a better doctor. Now she came face to face with all the ambiguities of death, and of her profession.
She remembered patients who complained to her that she did not know them well enough to recognize that they were stronger than she had thought. Now she discovered that she felt the same way about her own doctors. "I think they underestimated me," she said in an interview last summer.