Experiencing loss

How I survived losing my spouse to cancer in medical school

During this period of darkness in my personal life, osteopathic medicine gave me a lifeline.


Loss is a major factor in the origin and history of osteopathic medicine: A.T. Still, DO, MD, suffered the passing of four children to infectious disease and his first wife to childbirth complications. Combined with his terrible experiences in the Civil War, these tragedies caused him to question his profession, leading him to want to give up medicine forever. Instead, he used the love and devotion in his heart to transform his grief over time into a deep commitment to serve patients in a new and better way

My husband Ron’s esophageal cancer announced itself to us one evening while we were having dinner in a restaurant with his mother and aunt, who were visiting us. I had completed about two months of medical school and was completely infatuated with my experiences. I talked all weekend about how much I was learning and how much I loved it. That evening, as my spouse was eating beef tips, he suddenly said he was about to vomit.

I spread out my cloth napkin and drew his head down to the level of the table so he could use my lap as a basin and minimize his embarrassment. I looked down at the completely undigested food­—thus began his 14 months of dying.

The steps of his treatment were spaced out enough that I was able to stay in school. My classmates and faculty at what is now the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) instantly became a web of support for me. One classmate was with me when I took the phone call with the pathology results from the endoscopy and reached out as I literally fell to the floor. Another recognized six months after my husband’s death that I had fallen into depression and led me by the arm to the family medicine clinic to get a same-day appointment. A faculty member who was a gastroenterologist told me some difficult facts about my husband’s diagnosis when no one else wanted to. In these and many other ways, they looked after me even when I didn’t realize they were doing it. 

Tackling med school as a lifeline

I will admit that those first two years of school are a blur to me still. The part I remember the most is the osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) labs and the additional educational sessions I would go to during lunches and weekends. I remember learning from the late Anthony Chila, DO, who taught at Ohio University. He understood what it took me years to put into words—the ability of osteopathic medicine to transform harm and illness into wholeness and healing.

During this period of darkness in my personal life, osteopathic medicine gave me a lifeline. I felt vividly what the techniques I was learning did for me, and as I gained clinical experience, I felt what they could do for patients as well. As I went on to a residency in family medicine, time and again I saw my mentors demonstrate how supporting the whole person led to more comprehensive healing. 

My husband died early on a Monday just after Thanksgiving during my second year of medical school. He had been enrolled in hospice services for about a month at that point, and I was caring for him at home. That weekend, his primary care physician was out for a run and decided to come over to our home. I’ll never forget him standing in our bedroom in his sweaty exercise clothing, talking to me about the pain meds that were prescribed by way of teaching me some principles of end-of-life care.

He told me a story about a dying patient he helped care for as a first-year resident at a New York City hospital—it was Eleanor Roosevelt, and he was on the team attending to her in her last days. He wanted me to understand that my awful personal experience could make me a better, more empathetic physician. Not saying that I should be glad about it, not at all, but rather that I could find a way to transform it.

Patient benefits of transformation

I often tell students who are entering their third year and beginning clinical rotations to prepare to be transformed. I deeply hope they will not experience a personal tragedy while learning, but I know they will witness some and eventually life will bring grief to all of us. We are all in a profession where we have signed up to be transformed. We should talk about how it feels, tell our stories and let each other know that sometimes life—and practicing medicine—can be really, really difficult.

After residency training in family medicine in Ohio, I moved to the West Coast and practiced in a variety of settings, including Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC), free clinics, programs for those experiencing homelessness, farming communities and urban tech centers. When appropriate, I shared with patients and families that I too had gone through a serious loss and asked how I could support them. I also brought OMM to every practice setting. I found that taking time to really understand the reasons people were seeking help resulted in better care.

Patient care has brought me continual joy because of the connections it builds with other human beings. Now as I have transitioned to osteopathic medical education, I hope to inspire others to experience their work in that way.

It’s very common for the media to say, “the health care system is broken.” I refute that—health care has a meaning that transcends contemporary trends, and the doctor-patient relationship is as sacred as it ever was. The business of health care is in crisis, for sure, and amid all of that we should do what my classmates and mentors did for me—witness, listen and offer support when needed. This not only enables us to “find the health” for ourselves and our patients, but it also sets a standard for society that will be an enduring example of healing. We can follow Dr. Still’s example and let our love and devotion transform our grief into helping to heal others.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

From storytelling to healing: The empathetic power of narrative medicine

Listening to our patients: The sounds of an emergency department


  1. Robert S Juhasz, DO, MACOI

    Dr. Rupert, Thank you for sharing your journey and your transformation. I couldn’t agree more with you about the need to utilize the important approach to care that we have learned in osteopathic medicine to improve care in whatever setting we find ourselves and to be open to our own healing through the care of our amazing colleagues. Appreciative of your excellent article.

  2. Leonardo Guerra

    As a future OMS-1 this year, this hit home with own family. Thank you Dr. Rupert for this piece.

    This is a reminder to myself and others, be open and aware of transformation, because that too is therapeutic.

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