Dr. Christina W. Prillaman drives 45 minutes each way every day from her home in Newport News to her practice at Virginia Oncology Associates in Williamsburg. In the morning she is eager to get to work and see patients. At the end of the day she takes those miles a little bit slower in order to give herself time to decompress and make the transition from her professional role as a healer to her personal role as wife and mother of two teenagers.
A Day in the Life
A typical day for Christina starts with arriving at the clinic and following up with 30-50 patients who are receiving injections or chemotherapy in the back rooms. She also sees new patients, spending a little more time with them as she gets to know their histories and conditions. Later in the day she is pulled over to the treatment side to see more patients and review pathology reports and studies. Several of the patients she treats are women from Beyond Boobs!
After a busy day at the office Christina heads home to dinner with her family. Henry, her husband of 22 years, is also a doctor. He too sees cancer patients at his urology practice.
“Having two doctors married to each other isn’t for everyone,” Christina said. “For us, though, it works. We try not to dump too much on each other, but we know we have someone there if we need a sounding board. There is also a lot of understanding between us about being late and appreciating what the other goes through at work.”
Christina and Henry have two children: Grace, a high school senior, and William, a freshman. Grace has been applying to colleges and recently told her mother that she wants to pursue a career in medicine, too.
A View from Both Sides of the Bed
Christina understands what her cancer patients and their families go through because she was in their shoes – twice. When she was in college her mother was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer from a blood disorder and her father developed cancer of the pancreas and kidney. He did not survive.
“My experiences with my parents’ illnesses frame my practice,” Christina said. “In my lifetime I have found myself on both sides of the patient bed and that has given me a deeper understanding of what my patients and their family members are going through after a cancer diagnosis.”
She wants her patients to feel in control of their treatment and their lives, with or without cancer. She believes that the patient is the captain of the ship and she is the rudder, offering guidance and helping to steer treatment.
Pyramid of Perspective
Christina joked that she is better at hooking and unhooking a bra than a teenage boy. She uses humor to keep her job and her life in perspective.
“People are amazing,” she said. “I love seeing my patients and staff every day. I had a medical student with me one day while visiting a patient who had had breast reconstruction and she flashed her new boobs to the student. I love seeing how humor and the human spirit can help people overcome.”
Even though Christina strives to keep up her patients’ spirits as well as her own, there are days that are just miserable. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a living nightmare for patients and their families, but it is just as heartbreaking for the doctor who has to deliver it.
“It is miserable to give someone a cancer diagnosis,” Christina said in a quiet voice. “The sadness is overwhelming. If a patient suffers a relapse I have to try to buck up and deliver a message of hope to that person.”
Even though she knows that she did not put the cancer in that patient’s body, when a patient suffers a relapse she often blames herself.
“I wonder if I missed something or if there was something more I could have done for that patient,” she said. “I have to remind myself that just because I feel pain and grief doesn’t mean that there were errors.”
When Christina was deciding on whether or not to pursue a medical career in college she spent time with a relative who was an anesthesiologist. One of the first things he did when she visited him was draw a big triangle on a piece of paper. He said that at times in her career as a doctor, it would seem like everyone in the whole world was sick. He pointed to the wide base of the pyramid and said that that represented the entire population of generally healthy people. At the tip was the patients she would see. He told her that, while some people are sick, the majority are well. Christina took that lesson to heart and, on bad days, recalls that pyramid of perspective.
“When I am having a really bad day I will try to keep things in perspective,” she said. “I believe that knowledge is power and I try to arm myself with a plan to get through whatever is troubling me or my patient.”
A Doctor’s Advice
Christina sees cancer in all of its forms every single day. She cheers her patients through the highs and cries with them during the lows. She has a deeper appreciation for life in general and doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
“I encourage all of my patients to live life right now,” she said. “You’re well now and you need to enjoy that. I want everyone to be involved with life and not be absorbed by the minutiae of a cancer diagnosis. Take care of yourself, do what you can, and enjoy life.”