Sheila’s Story: A Love Letter to My Daughter’s Oncologist

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day I will feature a different guest blogger who will generously share their personal experience with childhood cancer.  Stories are always more potent than statistics. 

By Sheila Quirke 

Dear Stew,

I am fairly certain that you will read these words and they will embarrass you.  That’s okay. You’ve experienced far worse than a grateful, broken mother expressing her heartfelt love and admiration towards you.

Of course you have.  Your day-to-day is the dying and saving of children with cancer.  I can’t begin to understand what that is like, the weight that you carry.

I imagine it, though.  Well, I try.  All the time.  I’ve imagined what it must be like to be you since even before I met you — sometime between hearing the words, “There is a mass in your daughter’s head,” and those days a few weeks later when we actually met you, The Great Dr. Stew.

Did you know you have a bit of a reputation?  It’s true.

People love you.  Universally.  You are beloved. You wear silly ties and sing show tunes down the hall and have opinions about baseball and cartoons.  I know that you prefer Arthur over Caillou and the White Sox over the Cubs.

Honestly, I don’t know too much more about you, other than you do what you do inordinately well and that folks think very highly of you because of that.  I guess the not knowing leaves a bit of a clean slate, a tabula rasa, if you will, for me to project things onto you.

Try as I might to describe the esteem, the feelings a cancer parent has for their child’s oncologist, I always come up short.  ‘Intimate relationship’ is my go-to descriptor, but that sounds so clinical or vaguely misleading, doesn’t it?    But it’s true.

You have witnessed my most joyful and my most wrenching moments I will likely ever have on this earth.  And this is part of your job, your gig, so you do this with other parents, too.  All the time.

People say that the happiest days they have had are the day they married or the day their children were born.  Those days don’t hold a candle to the days I would get a call from you telling me that Donna’s chemo treatment was working, that her scans were clean.

Elation.  Relief.  Joy.  So much better than the day she was born — because I knew then, with certainty, in those calls with you, that nothing could ever, ever be taken for granted in my parenting.  Nothing in this world is a given.

You have a kindness and a generosity of humanity that astounds me.  I worry after you more often than I should.  I wonder, “What will people do when Stew retires?” or, “Is he eating well enough?” Like a Jewish mother, as if you needed another one of those.

When Children’s Memorial Hospital was closing its doors, I came by for one last visit, to pay my respects to the physical space that held so much of my daughter’s story in its walls.  I was sad and a little angry, I think.  Another connection to my girl, my Donna, was going to be lost to me.

You told me, that day, that you would take Donna with you.  I smiled politely, nodding my head, thanking you for your kindness.  Inside, hidden, I hope, was my more cynical, visceral response.  A great big, “Pffft.”  Please, I thought.  Right, he’ll take Donna with him. Sure.  Yep.  Alrighty!

Yes, perhaps there was some bitterness there, too, on the cusp of the hospital closing.

Months later, when I finally got up the courage to visit the new hospital, I saw you, walking down different halls, but still singing show tunes and still wearing a silly tie. And there, in that new and fancy hospital, a place my daughter had never set foot in, was my girl.  With you.  Just as you had promised.

How had I ever doubted you?

I knew then, Stew, that it was love I felt for you.  You are like home to me, like my childhood church, like a favorite blanket, or the familiar taste of my mother’s spaghetti. You are home.  My home.  I know, on a screen, those words probably don’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense, but in my head, they do.

You know Donna, my girl, inside and out, literally and figuratively.  You carry her with you, just as you said you would.  When I see you and we exchange hugs, there is love there. Genuine love.  It feels mutual.  There was a time I would have doubted that.  I don’t, anymore.

Dr. Stew, wearing a silly tie.  Of course.
Dr. Stew, wearing a silly tie. Of course.

So, yes, Stew.  I love you.  The love is selfish, as you are a human thread to the girl that is lost to me, but the other side of that love coin is just deep and unabashed respect and admiration for you.  What a magnificent human being you are to do what you do with such compassion and kindness and raw skill.

On behalf of every child you have treated, and every mother and every father, every brother and sister, every grandparent, aunt and uncle.  Thank you, Stew.  Words will never be enough, but perhaps the love will suffice.  You are simply extraordinary and we are so very grateful to you.

(Okay, on a scale of 1-10, how embarrassed are you?)

From a fan,

Sheila, Donna’s Mama


Stewart Goldman, MD is the Division Head of Hematology/Oncology, Neuro-Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.  You can read Dr. Stew’s Story HERE from the 2013 September Series, where he describes what it is like to be a pediatric neuro-oncologist.  If you wish to donate to his research, you can do that HERE, listing the “Neuro-Oncology Fund” in the comment section of the donation page.

Please know that Stew is one of many, too many to mention, that cared for my daughter during her treatment.  I could and should write love letters to all of them, from surgeons to nurses to custodians.  Each of them are loved and appreciated and, I suspect, will never fully know the role they play in the lives of the children they treat.


This year’s September Series is over, but you can still subscribe to my blog.  Here is how: Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

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