A medical and musical journey in 5 movements
(With a happy ending)
By Ted Rosenthal
I was now becoming resigned to surgery. Picking a date with 4 weeks recovery was tricky but I had a break in the action starting the second week of February. Dr. Iofin said he could do the surgery on February 8. The only other scheduling issue was that Lesley and I were hoping to take a trip to Israel at the end of that week to visit my cousin Ruth. She would be turning 95 and we wanted to celebrate with her and her large extended family in Tel Aviv. Surprisingly, Dr. Iofin thought going to Israel 5 days after surgery would be doable, so I scheduled surgery with Dr. Iofin for Feb. 8. Sensing how busy the highly recommended Dr. Athanasian was, I called his office and asked if I could pencil in a surgery even before I had my initial visit. To my surprise they said I could. I was now “double booked” for surgeries on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9. Hey, if the airlines can do it, why not surgical patients?
On January 7th, I finally had my appointment with Dr. Athanasian at Hospital for Special Surgery. I was with Lesley. When the doctor walked in he seemed quite serious. He had just seen my MRI. It was a lipoma, but he explained that there are a few types: regular, atypical, and a liposarcoma. The last one meant cancer. He also felt the tumor needed to be removed. His (highly) educated guess was that it was probably atypical. But he then told us he didn’t want to operate on me at HSS, preferring to do it at Sloan Kettering because he wanted to make use of their more sophisticated state-of-the-art labs to do a full analysis of the tumor once it was removed.
Well, anyone who lives in New York City knows that Sloan Kettering is a cancer hospital. Even though I took him at his word that it most likely wasn’t that, I was beginning to feel quite unsettled. In October I went to the doctor for a minor case of tendonitis and now I’m contemplating surgery for a tumor that might be cancerous? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?! Where are we going with this? Dr. A’s surgical prognosis was also sobering, one overnight in the hospital followed by a 3 month recovery. 3 months??? And he seemed to think there was a bit more of a chance that the nerve might be touched and there could be some tingling and numbness, most likely temporary. I reiterated that being a pianist, nerve damage was not an option. With a 3 month recovery time, February was not going to be a good time for surgery and I told him I’d like to wait until May when school was over and I had a bigger break in my gig schedule. Dr. A said he’d be ok to wait as long as we did a biopsy soon so he would know for sure what kind of tumor he was dealing with. We scheduled the biopsy for January 16, the day before Lesley and I were to leave for The Jazz Cruise for a week. I would get the results after my return.
The Jazz Cruise is one of my favorite things! A jazz festival at sea with great musicians, fun in the sun, and a great hang – what’s not to love? After a week of exciting sets – with my trio (Martin Wind and Tim Horner), Ann Hampton Callaway, Niki Haris, and the all-star big band – lots of fun and frivolity, it was time to return to “reality.” Another nice change of pace about the cruise is being (relatively) “unplugged” for the week – minimal internet, no phone. When I returned to dry land (and cell service) there were 2 messages from Dr. A’s office. I should come in this week to see him. My initial follow up was not supposed to be until weeks later so I took this to be an ominous sign.
But before I allowed myself to think about “reality” I had another exciting gig at the Kennedy Center with opera star Eric Owens and my “Japan Trio” – Noriko Ueda and Quincy Davis. We performed jazz standards with Eric and a number of trio features to a distinguished audience, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined us at a local eatery for an after party. Quite the musical and legal “hang.” But now it was back to New York and biopsy results…
Dr. A greeted me and immediately read the lab report word for word. He knew I wouldn’t fully understand the medical-ese, so he translated. There are atypical cells in the tumor, and because of its large size they didn’t get enough of a sample to be certain as to its type. He suspected “atypical” lipoma but couldn’t rule out a sarcoma (cancer) and didn’t want to wait until May to remove it. While not exactly needing to “rush me into the operating room,” he did want to do it “right away.” I had 3 upcoming gigs the following week so I suggested the week after – Feb. 10. He agreed. Based on Dr. A’s description of the surgery and recovery I had to begin thinking about navigating (canceling/postponing) various gigs and teaching. Not a pleasant task. Lesley and I also knew we’d have to cancel our trip to Israel. And after 4 rounds of submitting forms, doctor’s notes and lab reports, we were finally able to receive a refund.
The big day arrived. Lesley and I arrived at Sloan Kettering for my 9 AM “call.” Surgery was to begin around 10:30. Everything and everyone at the hospital was terrific. The morning began with prayers from Sister Catherine, then a million questions from the nurse, followed by a quick visit from the surgeon who initialed my arm around the incision point. He seemed to confidently know that it was the left…good thing! I was then escorted into the bright, high-tech looking OR and lay down. The last thing I remember is the anesthesiologist’s assistant introducing himself. I woke up in the recovery room, drowsy, with some pain but not too excruciating. I immediately looked down at my left hand, noticed that all the fingers worked and that I could feel them. No numbness or tingling that I could detect. Shortly after, Lesley appeared and I told her I can feel my fingers, all 3 of them… She knows me and my sense of humor very well and understood I seemed to be ok…
(to be continued)