…is you kind of forget the rest of your body is attached. And whatever fate happens to the elbow? It happens to YOU.
*If you missed my elbow’s 15 minutes of fame.
My first visit with Dr. God:
Typical exam room, if we ignore the stunning photographs of men and women free climbing. Little rocks like El Capitan in Yosemite.
I’m distracted by the free climbing photos. Free climbing: a human with talc on their fingers and good climbing shoes, going up, oh I don’t know, a granite slab the size of two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other.
To get an idea of scale:
See? Distracted. El Capitan is one of my favorite rocks. We visit Yosemite often. Why would a neurosurgeon have free climbers in his exam room?
Enter Dr. God.
I don’t want to talk about the lump. I want to know about the photos. It would be impossible for a surgeon to be a climber (one look at a climber’s fingers and you understand).
My ability to ask intelligent questions when denial is already onboard, and I’m flummoxed by photographs of climbers? Out the window.
He jumps into the gap.
“So! Hi. I’m Dr. God.”, big, honestly friendly smile, “whatcha got there?”
I like him immediately. He wants to know the answers to all kinds of unreasonable questions I never considered: when did it appear? How fast would I say it’s growing? Does it roll around, or is it immobile?
“Uh”, I say.
“Results are back from the MRI”, he says, “it looks like it’s growing on an offshoot of the Ulnar nerve.”
It really is on the last nerve of my funny bone. Oh. My. God. That’s hilarious!!
He rolls the lump around as far as it will roll. “Does this hurt?”
“Nope”, I say.
“Any numbness?” he continues.
“Only if I do this?”, I say, holding my arm up in the air. I add, hoping to show I’ve paid some attention to myself, “…but I have to hold it up there for a while.”
“How long?”, he asks.
“About now”, I reply.
Nice. That was all of two seconds. Could I look ANY more moronic? NO.
“Here’s what I think we should do…”, he says, conversationally, “I want to take a deep tissue biopsy of the lump. It’s surgery, we knock you out. We’ll biopsy it while you’re on the table, and if it’s cancer, we close you back up. If it’s not cancer, we take it out. If we just want to be extra super SURE it’s not cancer, we close you up, and send the sample to a special lab for extensive testing. Then if it comes back benign, we reschedule another surgery, go back in and remove the lump.”
What I hear: “lalalalalalala TWO SURGERIES lalalalalala”.
What I deduce from what I hear: Any surgeon who says “super sure” while describing their surgical plan, is a keeper.
Oh, whoops. He’s still talking?
“I called a surgeon friend at Sloan-Kettering. He’s the head of Surgical Oncology, and I ran it by him. Sent him the MRI and Ultrasound. He thinks we’re on the right track. I think we should just go for it.”
His tooth twinkles reassuringly.
I do not want to know the worst case scenario. I want the Disney scenario. I search for a reasonable, but innocuous question.
“What is it?”, I ask, finally, “a tumor?”
“I don’t know”, he says, “Probably. Could be cancer, could be benign. We really won’t know until we get in there. I’m hoping it will be a benign nerve sheath tumor. If that’s what it is, you will probably lose feeling in your arm here…” he taps my forearm, “and depending on how invasive the roots are, you might lose some function.”
That’s the Disney scenario? I rearrange the songbirds and ribbons. Numbness? Fine. Loss of function? I can ride Hudson one-handed. Better than it not being benign.
I’m onboard. I nod.
“Okay. That’s all doable”, I say, making him a very relieved surgeon. I’m not going to freak out.
I get it, suddenly. We’re free climbing here. No helmet, no ropes, no clips. Nothing but his incredible skill, good shoes and a chalk bag. He’ll get in there, follow the best route he can find, and follow it to its hopefully butter cream outcome.
(I resist the urge to tell him my “frosting tumor” theory.)
“Why can’t you just take it out?”, I say, “I mean, you could just take all of it out and then biopsy, right?”
He breaks eye contact with me, and backs away. Folds up my chart. Moves to a chair on the other side of the room. WHOA. What did I do?
There’s a long silence.
In a slow and deliberate tone, he says, “If it’s cancer, we can’t take it out.”
“I guess you should know”, he says, unhappily, “it’s a possibility you’ll have to face.”
I wait. He folds his arms and becomes very still. “We would close you back up, and tell you to go live your life. There’s no survival rate.”
WHAT?! I feel FINE. What does “no survival rate” mean? A month? A year? He sees all this go across my face. In that moment, I felt really bad for him. Who wants to be the person that has to say this?
Then I see a hopeful thought go across his face.
He brightens up. Uncrosses his arms, smiles kindly. “That’s the worst case scenario. Probably not what’s going to happen. But, you do need to be prepared. You know, if that’s where we end up, I could buy you some time. I can remove your arm.”
REMOVE MY ARM?
Outcome: I have both arms!
While it was shocking to go from “hey look a lump!” to “one-armed Jane” in a single sentence, the tumor ended up being the no-way-do-you-have-this, impossibly rare, non-cancerous wacko tumor. Thank you, God.
I found out later (when he threw himself on me post-op in a giant bear hug, crying.) he was fairly certain it was cancer. Thus the call to the expert at Sloan Kettering.
The tumor grew from a single cell that lost its marbles, and multiplied like crazy, a very fast growing tumor mostly on the nerve sheath. Even more lucky? The tests couldn’t show exactly where it attached. Once inside, he found instead of being on the ulnar nerve, it was growing on a small branch of the radial nerve. That’s the nerve that sends messages UP your arm, not down to your fingers.
The ONLY removal side effect is occasional..wait for it…waaaaait for it…put down hot beverages…
…until the nerve regenerates. Of all the terrible things that could have been, it only left me a little numbness in my armpit. If I’d been asked where I’d choose to be numb, it would not have occurred to me to think “I know, let’s go with the armpit!” while cataloguing body parts as locations for potential numbness.
I have angels, with a terrific sense of humor, watching out for me.