The day before surgery, my dear friends Josie and Jessie drove me to Collegiana, a hospitality house located near the University of Washington Medical Center. Although the hotel staff was warm and the room enormous, I had a restless night. I awoke three hours before my scheduled 6:45 a.m. arrival time at the hospital.
An hour after the rising sun blazed the sky, a Yellow-Cab driver drove me approximately two miles from Collegiana to the urology clinic. The rate was $8.00 plus a twenty percent tip to invest in good karma.
Minutes after my arrival, I was ushered into the pre-op room by a short man with a strong Spanish accent.
“How tall are you?” the man asked.
Although I thought the question was curious, I said, “Five foot ten. How tall are you?”
“Five foot six.”
He reminded me of my Uncle John who was equally stocky but sculpted with muscle. “Ah, low to the ground but strong,” I said.
As if in victory, the man lifted both arms and then sniffed his right armpit. “Si, strong like ox.”
He made me laugh, which I decided was a good way to begin my morning. “I’m Allen,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m David,” he said, with the accent on the second syllable.
“Happy to meet you, David.”
Once in the pre-op room, the man pointed at a beige nondescript-print hospital gown. “Take off your clothes and put this on.”
“Gee,” I said. “Beige is really not my color. Do you have something in royal blue or hunter green?”
“You have a choice. You can go with the gown or go commando.”
“I’ll take the beige.”
“Good choice,” he said with a wink. “A nurse will be in shortly.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Just don’t call me ‘shortly.’”
David side-eyed me and gave me an easy punch to the arm. “Good luck, senor Allen,” he said as he escaped behind the curtain.
For the next ninety minutes, I was interviewed by a half-dozen employees, each exchange beginning with a recitation of my name and birthdate. “Allen Johnson, 1-23-46. And please don’t ask if that’s 1846. It’s just rude. Besides, I’m in a very vulnerable state of undress at the moment. I don’t know how I might react; it could be scary.”
Others followed. One nurse double checked for allergies; another confirmed my post-operation contacts. More interestingly, a woman from the University of Washington research division asked if I would be willing to donate my cancer-infested bladder diverticulum to science.
“Of course,” I said. “Anything to advance science.”
“If you change your mind, you can contact us,” the woman said.
“I won’t change my mind. If my rogue cells can play a small role in beating cancer, I’m all in.”
The researcher thanked me and was gone.
The most important conversation was with my surgeon, Dr. Jennifer Seymour.
Dr. Seymour was young, tall, and slender. She looked as though she could have been a long-distance runner in college. Her hair was short, perhaps styled to fit easily under a surgeon’s cap.
“Good morning, Mr. Johnson,” she said with a sweet smile—or what I imagined was sweetness under her mask.
I asked if we could call each other by our first names. Although she muttered, “Yes,” I could tell her consent was conflicted.
“When you call me ‘Mr. Johnson,’” I said, “it makes me think you’re all about my skin and bones. When you call me ‘Allen,’ I have the feeling you care about my spirit.”
“That’s the most important thing to me too…Mr. Johnson.”
I gave up. In deference to her comfort zone, I decided to call her Dr. Seymour.
I have met a legion of professional people in my life, many of them stellar representatives within their discipline. But Dr. Seymour was unequivocally the most measured, articulate, and focused master of them all. I’d put her up against any challenger. That said, warmth was not her strong suit. That’s not a criticism—just an observation. We all have our personality styles, and, frankly, I would take her medical acuity over idle chit-chat in a New York second. Still, I always felt probing under her skin got under her skin.
But sometimes my curiosity is more demanding than discretion, and I plowed on. “Dr. Seymour, you deal with existential dilemmas everyday—perhaps every hour of every day. You literally hold the lives of your patients in your hands. Is that burden ever too heavy to bear?”
I could see the question wrenched her out of her comfort zone. The furrow between her brows deepened, and her head turned down and to the side as if waiting to hear a vertebra snick into place. “Well, that would take several hours to explore,” she finally said.
“I have the time.”
She reset her feet. “It’s the life I chose for myself, Mr. Johnson. It gives me the chance to help others. People just like you.”
Although I had a follow-up question in the cooker, I decided to set her free. “Thank you, doctor.” I paused. “And please know I trust you with every molecule of my body.”
Her response was timid but gracious. “Thank you,” she said.
She cleared her throat and reviewed the procedure. “I’ll make a six-inch vertical incision below your navel. Then, we’ll do a diverticulectomy and clean out any remaining tumors inside the bladder. Finally, we’ll double stitch the bladder and your entry wound.” She tapped the back of my hand. “All will go well, Mr. Johnson. I’ll see you in OR.”
“I’m just looking forward to lots of chocolate ice cream when it’s all over,” I said.
“You’re just like my two-year-old son,” she said. “Chocolate is his favorite food.”
“Sounds like your son is my kind of guy. After all, chocolate is the sixth major food group.”
“I’ll let my boy know you share his nutritional philosophy,” she said.
With that as the final word, she swept out of the room.
The journey began. I was wheeled out of the pre-op cubicle, around a corner, down a hall, through a set of doors, and into an all-white room with gleaming screens and saucers of overhead lights. For all I knew, it was a cryonics lab, equipped to transport my withered body into the twenty-third century for rebirth. It was that splendid and that imposing.
I counted the faces surrounding me—ten masked men and women in all. Later, I was told there were four urologists, three anesthesiologists, one scrub nurse designated to hand the instruments to the surgeon, and two extra nurses on standby in the case of an emergency.
“This is weird,” I said. “I feel like King Farouk and you my harem. So this is it; finally, I get my dancing girls.”
There was a ripple of laughs but to my mind not as robust as the line merited.
I looked to my right. Dr. Seymour gazed down at me. Her eyes were twinkling. It’s not often that eyes twinkle, but hers were dancing a mambo.
Being the only person in the room without a mask, I flashed my most charming smile. “Hi, Dr. Seymour.”
She called me by my given name—a first. “That must have hurt,” I said, “to call me Allen.”
More twinkling. “Not so much.”
“Since we’re on a first name basis, may I ask a question?”
“Anything,” she said.
“When you’re slicing into me, how about carving out a six-pack?”
I recognized the hum. It was the same sound my mother droned when I promised I was angelic all year long.
“I know, I know,” I said to the doctor, “it’s not in our contract. I just thought it was worth a shot.”
“Always,” she said.
I surveyed my surgeon’s team. They seemed serious, even solemn. A wave of dread flowed through me. I recalled Dr. Seymour saying I had an eight-percent chance of dying on the operation table. Suddenly, eight percent sounded like a huge number. I could not call her by her professional title—not now. “Jennifer, I want you to know something.”
She gazed deeply into my eyes as if our faces were swashed in tropical moonlight and she preparing to kiss me. That’s silly, I know, but her look was that intimate. “Yes, Allen.”
“A long time ago,” I said, “I willed my body to the University of Washington School of Medicine. If something goes wrong, you can keep me right here. This is home.” That was not a joke. I had willed my body to the university and had the card to prove it.
Then she did something that seemed out of character—or perhaps hidden from my notion of her true self. She took my hand in hers and did not let go.
The edges of the room darkened.
“Allen,” she said. “Our team is the best. I’m going to take very good care of you. I’ll be with you every step of the way.” Then after a pause, she added, “You’re not leaving us. And I’m not leaving you.”
Sweeping aside all remnants of professional protocol, I squeezed her hand to quell the urge to sob. “You’re my girl,” I said.
That was the last moment I remembered. I don’t recall being asked to count backward from one hundred. Regardless, I’m not sure I could have handled the mathematics. At that moment, I was flooded with one emotion: that my surgeon—a graduate from Harvard and Mayo Schools of Medicine—was warmer than I ever imagined. In the most profound meaning of the word, my doctor loved me.