Many are surprised to hear that suddenly I am so ill. Those who have seen me for the last year had little idea that I was actually slowing down. I tend to hide things well and minimize my limitations. Some may view this as a fault or pride, but since I did not know what was happening and whether it was reversible, I felt to keep it private. Once I finally did learn the gravity of my condition, I then shared the information with others. The immediate reaction was overwhelming. The emails, calls and cards expressing concern and support formed a touchstone through which I was reminded of the enormous number of souls from all over the planet that have touched my life in some way.
As we daily try to meet all of our appointments and tasks which are driven by our priorities and responsibilities, it is easy to forget the import of where we have been. This was made very evident a week and a half ago on Wednesday. I was scheduled to do two big cases that day, a pecutaneous nephrolithotomy and a laparoscopic radical nephrectomy. The first removes a large stone from a kidney through a half inch whole in the back. The second cures a kidney cancer by removing the kidney through a 3 inch incision at the belly button. I was in my office, awaiting my time for the OR and I got a call from my transplant cardiologist. The heart biopsy had returned positive for Amyloidosis. She told me that I should stop working immediately to prepare for the process of getting a heart and bone marrow transplant.
The call ended and I began to weep uncontrollably. Not because I had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness, but rather because I would stop doing what I have done for 20 years. I am defined by my responsibilities to other people. The only true happiness I have ever known was when I was in the service of other people. This is who I am. To suddenly cease doing this is to lose a part of myself. I wondered how in this emotional state would I be able to do these surgeries. But then, I am a surgeon. We do what we have to. I remembered how many people were praying for me, fasting for me; and in this moment I knew that their faith would carry me.
The first case went well and we got the stone out of the kidney. As I was getting ready for the last case, it occurred to me that I alone do not have the power to cure myself, but I can cure this man of his cancer. I have the strength left to do that. The surgery went as well as it ever has. Every step proceeded smoothly and in two hours I was speaking to his wife to tell her that her husband would be fine. During the case, all thoughts of myself disappeared I felt no weakness or dizziness. I was carried through. I knew that this was the last operation I would do for some time.
Soon, I was in the OR lounge and saw a woman on whom I had performed the same operation three years ago. She worked for environmental services. It was her job to clean the OR when we are done. I could not do my job without her. She always smiles when she sees me. For some reason this time she asked, "Dr. Anderson, why did I get that cancer?" to which I responded, "It is nothing that you did or didn't do, sometimes these thing just happen." I couldn't help think of my own situation in that moment. I then felt to say something much more personal. I said, "Every time I see you, I feel happy because you remind me that what I do has value." She then jumped up from her chair and came over and gave me a hug and said, "Thank you, Dr. Anderson, for saving my life." I could not imagine a more fitting end to such a day.
We all make a difference everyday in ways that we do not realize. The sum of all of those moments are what make our lives worth living. I am grateful for those myriad of moments that have made me who I am.