Saturday, December 25, 2004

On Christmas 2004, This Iowan Is a Living Miracle

A central Iowa man I know has always enjoyed Christmas and the things that go with it.

But Christmas 2004 has turned out to be one that’s extra special for him and those around him.

Ten days ago, he received a telephone call at 5:35 p.m.

It was the surgeon’s nurse.

“I have good news,” she said. “The mass is gone.”

There was only one way that the man could look at that.

He had just experienced a miracle.

THE STORY starts Oct. 26.

It was a Tuesday evening. It was already dark and the man was carrying the garbage down to the street for the Wednesday morning pickup.

He had to cough. He thought there was phlegm in his throat.

He coughed. Bright red blood was in his mouth.

The same thing happened two or three more times.

He told his wife and son he’d better go to the emergency room.

The bleeding had stopped once he got to the hospital. He figured that was good news.

The emergency room physician examined him, the doctor and several nurses began giving him a number of tests.

He had a chest X-ray, they drew blood from his left arm.

The early news seemed positive.

“The X-ray and the bloodwork are all right,” he was told by a nurse.

“What’s next?” the man asked.

You’ll have to stay overnight,” the physician said. “They’ll want to do more testing tomorrow.”

THE MAN was uneasy.

I’d feel the same way,” the doctor told him.

That didn’t make the man feel any better.

By that time, another physician had entered the picture. He specialized in lungs and what might be wrong with them.

The lung specialist agreed that the man should stay overnight.

The man didn’t sleep well that night at the hospital.

The first order of business Oct. 27 was a bronchoscope. That’s an uncomfortable exam, done with a flexible tube that has a light at the end and is inserted through a nostril, to examine the lungs and other parts of the chest.

One of the main reasons it’s done is to diagnose or rule out cancer.

The doctor—the same lung specialist who had examined the man in the emergency room—carefully looked inside the man’s chest, saying little.

“Did you find anything?” the man asked when the procedure was completed.

He doesn’t remember getting a straight answer. However, he was kind of woozy, so maybe he didn’t hear what the doctor said.

The man was taken back to his hospital room, still uncertain if the doctor had found any reason for the bleeding that had taken place.

Later that day, another doctor came to see him. He was there to inspect his nasal areas to see if that’s where the bleeding originated.

It was obvious to the man that there was still uncertainty.

Another test – a CAT Scan – followed. That was to zero in on certain areas of the body to get some three-dimensional looks.

THE MAN stayed in the hospital yet another night.

The following day, another physician came to see him in his room.

Accompanying the man was another doctor – a young woman. The male doctor introduced the female doctor to the man.

The male doctor did all the talking. The female doctor stayed in the background.

“We’re working to get you out of the hospital as soon as possible,” the doctor told the man.

The patient tried to relax. He couldn’t.

The tone of the conversation changed quickly.

“They’ve found a mass,” the doctor – also a lung specialist – told him. “That usually indicates lung cancer.”

The man was stunned.

He said he has smoked a total of two cigarettes in his entire life, and tried to inhale just once. But, like all of us, he’s been around a lot of second-hand smoke, and he had smoked an occasional cigar in his younger days.

It doesn’t surprise doctors these days to find a non-smoker who has lung cancer. Smoking obviously isn’t the only reason people get the disease.

The lung specialist visiting with the man attempted to paint the situation with an optimistic brush.

“We think a surgeon can remove the mass you have,” he said.

“It’s at the tip of the lung. The lower lobe of the left lung will be removed. You may not even need chemotherapy or radiation.”

The man listened carefully, but he also was thinking to himself.

He had gone through life wondering how a doctor tells a patient he might have cancer.

He had just found out.

THE MAN tried to think of something intelligent to ask.

He didn’t want to say something like, “How long do I have?” or, “Am I going to make it?”

Instead, he said, “How does it look?”

The doctor was ready for that question.

“You’ve been beating the odds all your life,” said the doctor, who was familiar with the man’s medical history.

“If you have the surgery, you have a 60 percent chance of being around five years from now. Without the surgery, it’s 10 percent.”

“I’m having the surgery,” the guy said.

“Good, we’ll schedule it,” the doctor said.

The man went home later that day. Naturally, he was uncomfortable with the news. It had changed his life dramatically.

Thanksgiving was on the way. Then Christmas. Naturally, the medical situation would be on his mind every day.

More testing followed. A PET Scan was ordered. That would tell if the cancer – if, indeed, that was what had invaded the man’s lung – had spread.

Following the PET Scan, the man visited the surgeon’s office. The surgeon, who operates mainly on lungs and hearts, was a very pleasant man.

“For some reason, I felt better after talking with him,” the man said at the time.

The surgeon had told the man that the mass in his lung was 3 centimeters in size.

“Do you think it’s malignant?” the man asked.

“I don’t know,” the surgeon said. “It’s 50-50. Knowing you’re a non-smoker makes me feel a lot better. Seeing what you look like makes me feel better, too.”

The man had been praying a lot in the days before he visited the surgeon’s office. He prayed a lot in the days that followed, too. He also knew other people were praying for him.

THE SURGERY was scheduled for Nov. 22, a few days before Thanksgiving. The man was supposed to be at the hospital by 5:30 a.m., the surgery was scheduled for 7:30 a.m.

“You’re the first one on the doctor’s schedule that day,” the nurse said on the phone.

The man, his wife and his oldest son arrived at the hospital early Nov. 22. Another of his sons arrived at around 6 a.m. His third son was also scheduled to be there in a few minutes.

All of the pre-surgery work was being done. The man was already in the hospital clothing that was assigned to him. A nurse had drawn blood out of his left arm and an IV was about ready to be attached to an arm.

“Just a minute,” a nurse said. “Don’t do the IV yet,” she told another nurse.

It turned out there was a problem.

The surgeon came to see the patient.

“The bloodwork shows that your blood is not clotting quickly enough,” the doctor said. “I don’t want to operate until that is cleared up. I’m going to have you go to a hematologist to find out what’s happening.

“This is not a life-or-death situation. If it was, I would operate today. But it isn’t. So I’m postponing the surgery.”

Without being told, it was obvious to the man that the surgeon didn’t want him to bleed to death on the operating table while the lung was being repaired.

An appointment was made for the man to visit a hematologist—a doctor who specializes in blood disorders.

More blood was drawn from the man’s arm that day. He visited with the doctor about the situation. The doctor put him at ease. He didn’t think there would be a major problem.

There wasn’t.

In a few days, when the test results were in, the doctor said he saw no reason why the lung surgery couldn’t take place.

So the surgery was rescheduled for Dec. 16. But, because so much time had elapsed since the doctors said he had a mass in his left lung in late-October, the surgeon’s nurse said the man should have another CAT Scan.

HE WENT to the hospital to have that done on a Thursday afternoon.

It seemed routine.

Again, the man and his family were scheduled to be at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. for a 7:30 a.m. procedure Dec. 16.

The man tried to be optimistic. He figured he’d have part of his lung removed and be on the road to recovery by Christmas.

Then came the phone call from the surgeon’s nurse at 5:35 p.m. Dec. 15—the evening before the surgery.

“We have the results of your latest CAT Scan,” she told the man. “I have good news. The mass is gone.”

The man was listening on a downstairs telephone that sits on the desk next to his computer. His wife was listening on an upstairs phone.

Neither could believe what the nurse had just said.

A mass [actually, that’s a name used by medical people instead of “tumor”] isn’t supposed to go away, especially if it’s malignant. It’s supposed to stay there and continue to grow. Unless or until, of course, it’s removed.

The nurse put the surgeon on the phone.

The man asked what he thought the mass might have been.

“It could have been pneumonia you had at some time,” the doctor said.

I don’t think it's cancer. We’ll order another CAT Scan for you in two months and, if all is going well, I won’t have to see you again.”

The man was speechless.

He had just had a starring role in a miracle.

The man called his sons, his daughters-in-law and his grandchildren.

“You know what?” one of his daughters-in-law said when she heard the news.

“When Shelby [one of the man’s granddaughters] found out you were going to have surgery, she prayed. She said, ‘Why doesn’t the mass just disappear?’

"I’d say her prayers were answered.”

So would I.

Vol. 4, No. 291
Christmas Day, 2004