Phil's speech at the inauguration of the Ambulatory Cancer Center inauguration of Butaro
Phil Garrity joined the Partners In Health staff in Boston in 2011 after volunteering with PIH’s sister organization in Peru. As program coordinator on the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Quality team, he helps to measure and evaluate PIH programs to demonstrate the success of the PIH model and improve quality of care. Last August, Phil was unexpectedly diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer, and began a nine-month treatment program that included chemotherapy and surgery at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His experience as both a patient and provider, one that has taken him from world-class hospitals to rural Africa, sheds light on the invaluable worth of promoting life, no matter the cost.
I’d like to express my gratitude for being here and for the invitation to participate in the inauguration of such a beautiful and urgently needed facility. It’s humbling to be standing up here for many reasons, but I’ll share one: I’m often at a loss when I wonder what gives me much of any legitimacy in sharing my story. Granted, I’m careful not to downplay the very real challenge I faced this past year—for I can imagine few trials more physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually demanding than cancer treatment, of laying waste to one’s own body in the hope of saving it—but it’s important to give context to my battle, especially as I reflect on it from a place far different than Boston.
It says something that within two weeks of presenting with some minor joint pain last August, I received an MRI, a CT scan, a biopsy, a diagnosis, a treatment plan, and chemotherapy, all in a few 5-star hotels known as the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It is no exaggeration to say that these institutions have cancer care down to a science, and not just in a technical sense. To think of the myriad comforts and conveniences of such state-of-the-art hospitals, and to weigh that against the brutality of my own treatment, leaves me rather speechless as I stand here today in the midst of patients and providers who wage this battle every day in a setting far less forgiving.
And while it’s difficult to compare my experience with those of the remarkable patients and survivors here at Butaro Hospital, I believe I can relate on a very basic level: I know what it means to be sick, and gravely so. A professor of liberation theology at Boston College, Roberto Goizueta, recently told me that he understands poverty to be more than a matter of material privation; the poor, he says, are those who simply cannot take life for granted. And the sick, very often, are among them. Illness experiences offer us a chance to see life through the lens of poverty, to illuminate our vulnerability as well as our interdependence with others and the world. Through these experiences, our humanity is revealed as a continual act of letting go, if only of our sense of entitlement to a life over which we so desperately claim ownership, a life that we so often take for granted.
And at the very least, I know that this experience has made it more difficult for me to do that. I know that there is something worse than receiving a cancer diagnosis at twenty-four: chemotherapy. (I can assure you, even now, it makes me a little nauseated to look at that beautiful infusion center). But what is worse than that? Getting a cancer diagnosis and not getting chemotherapy. And even worse, even more humiliating, than that? Not getting a cancer diagnosis. This last scenario is, sadly, the fate for countless millions in our world, a world in which people are relegated to die, like their diseases, in anonymity. I can say without hesitation that I am lucky to have been given my diagnosis, to have had 18 rounds of toxins pumped into my body, to have lost 30 pounds and all of my hair, to have had much of my leg replaced with metal. I am lucky to have had the chance to nearly die so that I might live.
I think there’s a very profound metaphor here. Cancer treatment shows us what we as humans are willing to do to protect and promote life. It shows us to what extraordinary lengths we will go, what incredible sacrifices we will make, in order to honor and venerate the life given to us. The simple (or not so simple) act of defying conventional wisdom and bringing world-class cancer care to rural Africa is a testament to this deep respect and radical commitment. To the naysayers, the pragmatists, the “reasonable” ones, we ask: Who are you to say this shouldn’t or can’t be done? That it is too costly, too difficult, too bold? As we’ve seen, and as we are beginning to show the world, it’s not only fair, it’s feasible.
I am incredibly proud to be part of a global community of courageous, compassionate people who spend their lives committed to the humbling yet ennobling work of living out our reverence for life. I thank all of you for advancing this life-saving work, for giving my life back to me in so many ways, and for allowing me to give my story back to you.