Stayin’ Alive

By

Leonard Zwelling

            “You
never know when you will have to run the marathon”.

            This
is one of the favorite sayings of my good friend Dr. Martin Raber, former Vice
President and Physician-in-Chief of MD Anderson. We are the two ex-VPs you will
see wandering around the Westwood Golf Course on the weekends looking for golf
balls and enjoying breathing, for both of us are grateful products of modern
medicine’s ability to waylay the Angel of Death. Both of us are also firm
believers of staying in the best physical shape we can because we have called
upon that fitness at various moments of an unplanned nature.

            Many
years ago I got a call from the CT suite that Marty was having a mass near his
liver biopsied because his physician was unhappy with the unexplained elevation
of his serum alkaline phosphatase. This led to the imaging studies that found
the mass that turned out to be an unusual (God save me from being an
interesting patient) lymphomatous variant of Waldenstrom’s macoglubulinemia.
Unfortunately this is usually a fatal diagnosis. Fortunately, he was being
cared for at MD Anderson where quit is not in the vocabulary, particularly when
a malignancy attacks one of the family.

            As
I said, Marty and I are still chasing errant golf shots into the woods of
Westwood so he is still here notwithstanding a few near fatal recurrences and
complications.

            My
story is a few feet north and west from the origin point of Marty’s scar. I was
having palpitations. No pain. No shortness of breath. No angina. My physician
is my medical school roommate, Chung-Shin Sung of St. Luke’s. While Dr. Sung
was well aware he had a hypochondriac for a patient, he also wasn’t willing to
have his roommate die on him, so he performed a cardiac catheterization on
August 17, 2002 to clear my anxiety, my head, and his small index of suspicion
that I was really sick.

            Forghedaboudit!
Even turkeys get sick!

            Sung
got Genie from the waiting room 15 minutes into the cath. I had two major
blockages in my coronary arteries, left main and left anterior descending.
These are the kinds of lesions that killed Darrel Kyle called “widow makers”
for obvious and ominous reasons. Two days later Dr. David Ott rearranged my
cardiac plumbing and my very long rehab began. But rehab, I did and like Marty,
I got ready for the next unanticipated marathon.

            I
just finished my latest “26-miler” spending about 4 hours on the St. Luke’s
cath lab table having the electricity of that same heart redone due to unwanted
circuits of flutter and fibrillation that again threatened to kill me with a
fatal rhythm or a stroke born of clots emanating from my poorly contracting
left atrium. Once again, I am beginning rehab.

            I
tell these stories because Marty is absolutely right. The unanticipated will
happen. As my friend Stephen Levine says, “you have a body. It wears out”.
That’s life. But you can head into that life with a body as prepared as
possible for that marathon you are forced to run when you are least likely to
know the start of the race was waiting for you.

            We
are but two of the faculty of MD Anderson prepared to run marathons to keep
breathing. This institution always counted on this sort of preparation and
dedication by its faculty and staff to keep going even when things got tough.
Right now, things are tough. But I am quite sure the faculty and staff are more
than prepared to run the marathon needed to continue the great tradition of MD
Anderson clinical care and research.

            What
they are not prepared to do is run this marathon at the 4 minute per mile pace
the administration seems to desire to make its ludicrous budget projections and
feed its equally ridiculous goals in drug development as a revenue stream,
basic research as a growth industry as the NIH budget shrinks, and profligate
spending on salaries, refurbishment of space and couches.

            Marty
and I are no longer young and by the end of the month, we will both be retirees.
But the spirit of MD Anderson’s personnel to do what is necessary for the good
of the whole is both very much alive and one we learned and passed on—we hope.
The current leadership is squandering that inheritance with its hubris and
unreal financial goals.

            Despite
predictions to the contrary, Marty and I will continue to try to stay alive and
perhaps, even kicking, but certainly swinging.  MD Anderson should consider doing the same by maintaining
itself in the best shape possible by caring for its most critical asset, its
people, while allowing them to train for the unexpected marathon, not the
permanent sprint.

Leonard Zwelling