Several days each year, I teach high school health classes about smoking. The kids, no doubt, understand that a middle-aged physician is going to tell them that smoking is bad. As I begin, they are polite but disengaged. As I run through statistics about teen tobacco use, they look around, stifle yawns, and do their math homework. Then I show them videos I made of some of my patients.
One woman in her late 40’s had a recurrent cancer. She is lying in a hospital bed, gaunt, pale, and exhausted. She has a feeding tube in her nose. Her voice is hoarse and her movements deliberate. On the video, I ask her if she thinks her smoking had anything to do with her cancer. “Oh, definitely,” she responds. Then, spontaneously, she continues, “Every time I see someone smoking, I’d just like to tell them about me and how much I have suffered.” She takes a deep involuntary breath and begins to cry. I have watched the scene dozens of times and it still affects me.
As she wipes her eyes, the kids in the classroom are transfixed to the screen and absolutely silent. I honestly do not know if this woman, now long dead from her cancer, has had an impact on individual kids’ smoking behavior, but I like to think that her testimony has made a difference in at least a few of their lives.