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Forgetting How to Text, Relearning How to Write: A Doctor Works Through His Own Cancer

Dr. David Flockhart sending a text.
Lauren Weghorst

As his own brain and neurological function changed after his diagnosis with brain cancer,  Dr. David Flockhart observed himself with the eye of a scientist.  

Barb Lewis: How has your brain tumor and the treatments you're undergoing affected you mentally and physically?  

Dr. Flockhart: There’s this very interesting thing, where you lose things that are so intuitive, you can’t imagine that you would lose them. Picking up a toothbrush, holding a spoon. The first thing I noticed when I came out of the surgery was that I couldn’t text. I’m a texter. I had my iPhone out and I wanted to text my daughter and I couldn’t text. And I tried to understand why, why couldn’t I text. The reason was was that I didn’t know where the letters went on a typewriter, so I knew what a “w” was and what an “a” was, but I didn’t know where they went on the typeface. So I had to relearn that so that I could text again. A major priority.

Lewis: So you’re looking at your phone and you’re able to hit the little icon. And then what? 

Dr. Flockhart: It’d be like this: I would want to say the word “am.” Where’s the “a”? I don’t know. Go around and find it. Where’s the “m”? I don’t know. Go around and find it. And then just practice it and practice it and practice it. Literally learn the typeface again. And I had to do the same thing with block capital letters. Learn how to write again. My writing, when I started in rehab, was horrific. A lot of my stuff was normal for a doctor’s writing. But I couldn’t write, so I had to relearn letters, both cursive and block. And now I can write. I’m actually pretty good. I’m slow, but my writing, ironically, was much clearer than it was before.

Lewis: What about some other things? 

Dr. Flockhart: If you look at a clock face on a wall, and knowing where the 1 went. I know what 1 is, but where does it go on a clock? I have no clue. That’s spacial. That’s knowing where something is in space. I had to relearn that, too. Now I can do it.

Lewis: So it wasn’t just swelling in the brain?

Dr. Flockhart: Of course, some of it is due to having swelling in the brain. Remember this very careful surgery, so there’s swelling in this very specific area. It’s anatomically where the lesion is. This pattern was continued when I started therapy. So these guys and women I’m sure designed a very specific geographic radiation treatment for my specific brain. That has two implications. One is the same as before. You preserve the person while maximizing the pediatric effect while working on the tumor. But the other huge thing about that is, while doing all of that, it’s really fast. It’s done in ten or fifteen minutes. 

Dr. David Flockhart is a pharmacogeneticist at the Indiana University School of Medicine. 

Part 1: After Cancer Diagnosis, One Doctor Takes On Two Roles: Expert And Patient

Part 3: "You Learn the Tricks": Cancer Patient and Doctor on the Rehab Process

Part 4: So Many Unknowns: A Doctor's Frustration with Cancer Is Not What You'd Expect

Part 5: In the Midst of His Own Cancer Treatment, A Doctor Scans Family DNA For A Link

Part 6: Sometimes The Most Effective Form Of Cancer Therapy Is Just Caring