Things were not yet done, by any stretch of the imagination. After finally being moved to a regular room, I found myself confined to the fourth floor of the hospital under doctor’s orders until my release a month later. Along the way, it was revealed to me that the doctors had not been able to completely remove the tumor during the first operation; more surgery would be required after everything had been given sufficient time to heal…and if the second procedure did not succeed in getting everything out, I would likely be looking at subsequent radiation therapy. So I was back in surgery again that August; this time, however, the operation was much more under control, with much less bleeding…although my post-op experiences were pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier surgery, right down to the stitches and the string (the only difference was that was there was no need for incisions in my neck this time around). Fortunately, the second operation was successful in eradicating the tumor, although a rather horrifying setback three weeks after the surgery – the one and only time throughout the entire ordeal that I truly felt pure, unadulterated fear – cost me an additional month in the hospital; my August stay wound up being two months in duration.
But the spontaneous nosebleeds never did come back – nor did the tumor. With that said, there were some permanent mementos that I carry around to this day. Except for an occasional intense itching sensation, my left cheek is pretty much numb; my left eyelid is prone to drooping. My left eye itself is essentially useless, owing to a large blind spot related to the tumor. The surgical scars remained very vivid for several years before they started to gradually fade; those around the nose are pretty much invisible now and, although the scars on my neck can still be seen, they are no longer as prominent, having faded over the years from red to pink until their coloration now matches the surrounding tissue.
And then, maybe eight years ago, I began to hear a thumping in my left ear. It sounded very much like a sound I had heard all those years before. It came and went the same way. And I was terrified. I knew what I had to do, though, and I immediately set up an appointment with the Marshfield Clinic once again. Dr. Aguas was now in California and Dr. Bersalona had retired; my case was now being handled by Dr. Timothy Boyle, who was too young to be a doctor, dammit. All kidding aside, the man had done his homework. Besides doing a thorough examination in the finest tradition of Dr. Aguas, he had pulled out my case file – which, jokes about his relative youth aside, he was perusing with the utter fascination of a kid who had perhaps just discovered a new comic book; it was apparent to me that he had never seen anything quite like my case before. I was almost expecting the word “cool” to come out of his mouth at some point; with that said, all of his enthusiasm was framed in a manner both professional and upbeat. His first comment, upon looking into the file, was “You know, the doctor that operated on you really had a pair of stones on him.” It was Dr. Boyle who first told me, in so many words, how close I had come to never making it out of the operating room. He began to recount some of the details of the first operation – at least until I asked him to please stop. Although these were fascinating details, to be sure, and things about which I should probably have been more curious…after all of these years I still develop a physiological reaction to such things even when no pictures are involved; in spite of my best efforts, these things still make me quickly go cold, clammy and woozy. At any rate, he told me there was nothing to worry about; in fact, this time it actually was some fluid in my ear canal that had not drained properly. And then, on my follow-up visit, he told me something that left me completely awestruck. He told me about a patient he had just performed surgery on – a young guy, about the same age as I was when everything went down, and with the same type of tumor. And he told me how his having read my case helped him immeasurably in mapping a strategy with which to attack the tumor on the young man who was in his care. He told me that he knew things were going to be messy, but he was fully prepared, and everything went very well. I then asked if the patient was still in the hospital, as I would really like to take a few minutes to talk with him and offer whatever support I could. He had already been discharged, I was told, so a visit was not possible. And any letdown that I may have felt at not being able to meet somebody who had dealt with the same illness as me was far outweighed by the knowledge that I had indirectly helped in his treatment as well as the overwhelming sense of awe that I felt when the doctor told me about what had happened.
In closing: I have not written all of this looking for any sort of pity or sympathy whatsoever; I am fully aware that countless others have dealt with worse – and of those, far too many of their stories came to a less than happy ending. Rather, it is in a spirit of celebration and survival that I have put this together. Whatever I may have endured as an eighteen-year-old has helped to form the person that I am today. Whatever physical scars I may carry today are a sign that I have survived…no scars, no Mike. (I shudder to think of how this might have played out in the days before modern medicine…and yes, I do think of those who were afflicted by this back then.) To be given forty years of bonus time (and, God willing, many, many more); to be given a chance to raise a family; to meet so many friends that I could not hope to count them all; to maybe bring some good to somebody’s life in a way that perhaps nobody else could…these are all truly awesome gifts (and, trust me, I do not throw the word “awesome” around lightly). To be sure, I have not always treated these gifts as I should; it goes with being human, I guess. But, when everything is said and done…for all that I have been given, I am forever grateful…and that includes each and every one of you.
Here’s to another forty. (Or, perhaps, forty-two or more; I am just ornery enough that I think I would make a good centenarian…and I am willing to give it a try…)