The Big(gest) Exam

It was a scene straight out of medical school; late-night cramming for a morning exam.

Her (their) bed had morphed into a spacious but cluttered desk. With papers, notebooks, books, highlighters and images strewn everywhere, we were flipping back and forth through folders and reports; searching for the article in which X was mentioned; analyzing the minutiae of digital images – optimally viewed against the glow of a white screen on my laptop; calling up scores of already reviewed data on the internet, and seeking out newer data that might disprove (or confirm?) that which we already knew; comparing information from bona fide medical websites to the notes we had taken during countless consults, and more, so much more.

We pored over the materials for hours, mulling over slightly diverging opinions, raising doubts, wondering whether we had done enough homework. Our list of questions and uncertainties multiplied as the minutes ticked by. Yet, there was no medical professor or resident, no specialist or oncology maven whom we could call at 1:00 a.m. to ask for clarification. Indeed, even if we had time the next day, and the next, there was nobody to whom we could turn to for the right answer to the biggest exam of her life thus far. And that, at bottom, was all that she wanted.

Which is the singularly most frustrating aspect of such a vital task: We have been floating and flailing about in the deep blue sea (and sky) of the unknown, aware but angry that nobody can provide her/us with the one, the only, the ultimate answer. It’s like taking a multiple choice quiz, where all possible responses might be acceptable to the person marking the test. But this quiz is decisive, life-changing and (at least in relation to one response) irreversible.

Photo: Grant Faint/Getty Images

Moreover, each exam is tailor-made to the student sitting for it, so that seeking out answers to quizzes from prior years is not likely to be very helpful beyond providing a spectrum of choices. Nobody who has taken this test previously can give her the right answer to her exam. And what’s worse, there are no crib notes. Anywhere.

I remember, while writing law school exams, that I would occasionally land on a question that would stump me. I could usually narrow the field of choices down to the final two; but then I would waver, I would question my gut feeling, and I would struggle to call up a pertinent point of law from my fatigued, quasi-dormant brain. But still, there were times that I simply picked an answer, blindly, from sheer frustration or because time had run out.

It’s a bit like that here. We’ve built up a massive compendium of data, we’ve studied ad nauseum, and we can both ramble off oncology terms with the best of them. However, this is no competition and no medal awaits her at the finish line. The agony of (in)decision, the fear of ultimately checking off the wrong answer, and an intuitive inner guide that’s been pulled in different directions; they all haunt her still.

Herman du Plessis/Getty Images
a clouded-over intuition a clouded-over intuition
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