Borrowed Time

Jenna M. Davison, M.D./M.P.H. class of 2022

Have you ever heard the phrase borrowed time? The dictionary defines it as the uncontrolled  postponement of something that is inevitable. When someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness – it often feels like they are living on borrowed time. What they don’t tell you is that their loved ones are living on it too.

My father was diagnosed with cancer a month after I took my MCAT, and I spent the last two and a half years of my life watching him slowly succumb to an illness that no person on earth should ever have to come to know.

I decided to attend medical school long before my father got sick. Even so, in my first year I still received questions like, “How can you be here when your father is so sick?” Those who spoke the questions always meant well. It is not every day that a classmate reveals their parent has a terminal illness, and gut reactions – just like the situation itself – are not frequently controllable. My answer was the same every time, that he wanted more than anything for me to be here. The reply was undeniably the truth, because he had been involved in every single step of this grueling process.

He was an English teacher of over thirty years forced into retirement by his cancer. In April of 2016 I started my primary application to medical school. He read and edited every single essay. It wasn’t only that I had asked him to do it, but that he wanted to. It became our daily devotional to each other. I would pass short answers to him, asking him to make sure every comma was in the right place. Some days were harder than others, “You aren’t going to like this one,” I would say. In finding out the essay I had written was 204 words over the count, he sent me back several emojis rolling their eyes. “I got carried away, I was just so passionate!” He would send back several more emojis, and a note that he hoped I didn’t use the word “passionate” in yet another essay.

Sixty-five essays and far too many secondaries later, there is one that sticks out. He asked me sometime in June what I had for him that evening to look at. “You don’t have to read this one,” I said in a phone call that was about to be likely one of the deepest ones I would have with my father in my lifetime. “It’s my adversity essay. I wrote it about becoming a sexual assault survivor. It’s okay you don’t have to read it.” He knew about my experiences prior to the essay, but simply stated that I should send it anyway. The next day I received an email response, an expanse of six paragraphs detailing how proud he was of me. It was the first of many times over the next two years I would think to myself how much I was going to miss my father.

I spent a lot of time in airports over the next year. I would call him at every layover detailing the flight and the time of my medical school interview the next day. His only request was that I get him a baseball hat in every state that had a Major League Baseball team. At every delay he would tell me about the time he spent on planes as a baseball player for the American Legion. He always told the same story about a friend who joked that there was a bomb in his bag during a layover. His friend arrived back in their hometown over a day later, with his own story to tell.

In December I held a check in my hand for a school that was close to home. It was a very large non-refundable deposit, and I had not gotten into any of my top schools yet. He called me. “You cannot just go to a school you don’t want to, because I am sick.” He was right.

He was in chemotherapy when I got into the OHSU M.D./M.P.H. program. The borrowed time was starting to feel more uncontrollable than it ever had before.

In March of 2018 after far too many radiations, surgeries, and chemotherapy treatments his cancer came back again. In April, he transitioned to hospice.

On Father’s Day I bought him a remote-controlled plane we could fly together. We went to the local junior high and flew it for about 30 minutes before he unceremoniously crashed the plane into a tree. He looked at me apologetically, but all I could do was laugh more than I had in months.

Two weeks later he passed away.

They don’t tell you how borrowed your borrowed time is. You don’t get to decide when the greatest tragedies of your life are going to happen. They unfortunately don’t get announced with thunderous clouds before a lightning strike. I knew my father was not going to live long enough to see me graduate from medical school, but I attended anyway because this was the dream my parents and I had held for nearly a decade.

I no longer live on my father’s borrowed time. In many ways it is a relief. I can now receive a phone call without being sent into a certain level of terror about what news might be on the other end. In all of the other ways, it is an inconceivable sadness. As a medical student, all I can do is trudge on and know that my father is still with me every step of the way.


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