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Opening the Pandora's Box

Life went on normally for the next year or so; save for one minor scare that turned out to be an infection. But then came the spring of 1981. Another lump appeared and the pains returned. I returned to Dr. Sullivan's office. He gave me some more medicine to take in hopes that all I had was another "rare, benign growth." However, he also pointed out that "you're not supposed to get two of these in the same ear." Hmm...

After a week's vacation and no lessening of pain, we decided to schedule another biopsy. Yes, it was coming up to Labor Day weekend again - but this time, things would be different! I agreed to surgery the Wednesday before Labor Day, but insisted on staying in the hospital an extra day. This time, Dr. Sullivan arranged for the pathology to be sent to the Armed Forces Medical Center For Pathology in Washington, DC to be reviewed by a specialist he once trained under.

The procedure took place at Riverview on September 2, 1981. Things were much different this time! I was actually quite coherent upon awakening. I even attempted breakfast, albeit unsuccessfully. But I certainly had an appetite for lunch and dinner - and both managed to stay down. This time I was able to return to work right after Labor Day without ill effects. I was told the preliminary pathology from Riverview was negative - but the folks in the lab were happy someone else was going to review my lump.

Two weeks later, I was back in Dr. Sullivan's office awaiting the report from Washington. The news wasn't good - and the lump was being sent to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia for yet another opinion. Meanwhile, Dr. Sullivan arranged an appointment for me to see Dr. Biller at Mr. Sinai Hospital in New York City. He told me there were two reasons for this referral: "One, he's a top doctor in the field. Two, he's a human being." After all we hear about insensitive doctors, I felt some reassurance.

But Dr. Sullivan looked scared, as if he'd just opened a Pandora's Box without knowing what was going to come out next. There was no way of telling whether the initial biopsy had been diagnosed incorrectly, he explained. "I don't know what I can say to make it sound better," he said. Heck, I knew there was nothing to say...

However, there was the matter of telling Ken - and everyone else. I paid my fee for the visit and made Ken get into the car without turning on the engine before breaking the news. His first reaction after the initial shock? "No, we're not buying a new car."

We visited Dr. Biller in early October, armed with a letter of introduction from Dr. Sullivan and a bunch of reports. Dr. Biller seemed to be the personable fellow I imagined (per Dr. Sullivan's "hype"). After reviewing everything I brought and looking me over, he rattled off a bunch of sentences that probably amounted to a diagnosis - none of which made much sense at the time. The only thing that made any sense to me was the comment that half my face may become paralyzed. At that point, I asked if he wouldn't mind repeating this to my husband, who was out in the waiting room. "No problem," the doctor said. "Bring him in." Ken came in, the doctor repeated everything he told me - and it made even less sense to him. (So much for witnesses!) All we knew was there would be major surgery, followed by a few weeks of radiation, and a paralyzed face.

We left Dr. Biller's office even more confused than ever. This required some good stiff drinks, though neither of us indulged in alcohol very much. (Our interest in wine was many years away!) The only thing I could think of was the rum punch in the funny statues at Benihana - and that's where we went for dinner. After all, we promised ourselves we weren't buying a new car.

Back home, I had one more visit with Dr. Sullivan, who attempted to explain what might happen. He promised to be around to provide progress reports to Ken as best he could. We were told to expect the surgery to last at least 3 to 4 hours.

Modified 3/4/2000