The Price is Right contestant. Ukulele player. Palliative Medicine doctor.
Dr. Lynda Tang once stood in line for 12 hours to audition for The Price is Right when she was in graduate school. She won a spot, and in an old YouTube footage of the show one can see her leaping up and giving Bob Barker a giant hug of excitement. This was shortly after winning the item up for bid—an ugly ceiling fan—that hangs in her home to this day.
“I can’t get rid of it. It’s a conversation piece,” she says.
That openness—a warm smile and ready hug—are trademark Dr. Tang. A palliative care doctor at Vancouver Clinic, she has made a career out of helping people feel comfortable and cared for during serious illness.
“My goal is to make them feel not alone, to let them know they have an extra layer of support from our team,” she says. “We can be another shoulder for you.”
Dr. Tang and her team—which includes a social worker, nurse, and medical assistant—help care for Vancouver Clinic patients and families who are dealing with chronic and terminal illnesses. They listen to people talk through the big emotions that come with a difficult diagnosis, facilitate conversations about what is important to them in life, and help relieve troubling symptoms, such as pain and lack of sleep.
While it can be tempting to pigeonhole palliative care as something that’s only for patients who are about to enter hospice, Dr. Tang sees a wide range of individuals. Some will need hospice years down the road. Others are on an organ transplant list. Still others have a chronic, but not life-threatening illness that is diminishing their quality of life. Because sickness can be nearly as tough on family and caregivers as it is on the patient, most of Dr. Tang’s consults include one or several loved ones.
No matter where people are on their journey, Dr. Tang is there to listen. Consults last up to an hour, giving patients the time to talk about their wishes, desires, and intimate feelings. She often finds that they voice things that they’ve kept inside for decades.
“We offer a hand to hold and the space to let it all out,” Dr. Tang says. “We’re there to empathize, validate feelings, and help work through problems. Afterwards, most people feel a sense of relief and clarity. Others say they felt their concerns were heard and that they wished they had come earlier.”
One of the important things Dr. Tang discusses during these consults is advance care planning.
“Advance care planning is talking about the life you want to live now,” she says. “It’s not end-of-life planning. It’s how well you’re going to live until that time.”
Dr. Tang likes to encourage patients to think about what a beautiful day is to them, maybe going on a hike, fishing, or playing with grandchildren. Then she asks people how they would feel if their health were to change, or if a medication or procedure would threaten that. The idea is to find what makes people happy and to discover the quality of life that matters to them.
“For some people, if they are in a frail condition or bedbound, but are aware of their family, it’s still a meaningful life,” she explains. “For other people, if they could never get back out to the trails and feel the dirt on their feet or the wind blowing through the trees they’d be miserable.”
Dr. Tang believes it’s important for everyone—even healthy adults—to have these conversations. Starting early allows the talks to feel normal rather than dreaded. If people regularly discusses what gives their life meaning, by the time a tough decision does come they are clear on what they want and their family can honor those choices.
Dr. Tang witnessed the benefits of clearly communicating one’s wishes when she was in medical school. Her grandfather repeatedly told his eight children that if he were ever in a terminal state that he didn’t want to know the diagnosis because it would break his spirit. When doctors found a spot on his lungs, all the aunts and uncles agreed not to investigate it further. They knew his wishes. Some medical professionals pushed back on the family’s decision, but they held strong. For nearly two more years her grandfather continued to travel, visit casinos, go on walks, and spend time with his family. When he died he still didn’t know he had cancer.
“He didn’t die fearful or of a broken heart,” Dr. Tang says. “He died with his children around him.”
While her grandfather’s passing taught Dr. Tang about planning, it’s her patients who have taught her how to live every day. When Dr. Tang started doing this work she had no idea how much she would personally benefit from it.
“Patients constantly say: It’s all about family, embracing what you have, and really being grateful. So I’ve lived such a fuller life as a result,” she says. “When I go home, I care less about the laundry. I care less about the dirty dishes. I care so much more that I have my health, my husband, and my children. There isn’t a more meaningful gift my patients could give me except for the appreciation to live well and be grateful for what we have.”