When I was a much younger guy (when Moby Dick was a minnow) I was a pretty fair musician. 14 years of classical piano training under my belt made picking up the guitar pretty easy. I played lead guitar in several bands that played the Kansas City bar scene, and grew up in a time when rock and roll was a different thing than the pabulum that passes for it today (sorry millennials). While I loved Hendrix and others, Eric Clapton was my guy; the one I wanted to emulate and be. Years later, when he started his rehab clinic in the Caribbean, and I was a grown man, he was selling a chance to spend 5 days with him playing and learning, for 10k a slot with 9 other buyers/wannabe’s. It was out of my $ league, but everyone gets the excitement of the idea that you could go to baseball camp or whatever as an adult to play ball with your hero’s. He was mine, and even as an adult I still wanted to play with him. As time went by, my drives changed. War came and went. Marriages. Cancers. Life changes. You evolve, your direction and drives change. After my dance with oral cancer everyone knows how my drives changed and how OCF evolved from that change. The idea of going to a fantasy sports camp or guitar camp with a hero subsided, and new hero’s emerged in my view. Some were patients whose inner strengths I could only aspire to, but others were on the treatment side of things.
When you think about those that repair and heal us as oral cancer patients, you have radiation, chemo, and surgical docs that become part of your world. Considering each specialty; two are fairly removed from you via chemicals and machines, but head and neck surgeons…they are a different crowd. Their part of the dance with you is intimately, physically entwined. They are inside you, and their hands and your blood intermingle in this dance to treat or salvage your physical being. Scalpels, grafts, or harvested bone and tissue, plates screws and sutures, wielded by their hands, take you physically apart and put you back together. This is a serious world absent of the word oops. It’s a very personal place where every stroke of their instruments has a precision that is thought through by a human mind, wielded by a human hand, driven often by on the spot human decision making – when they realize what is really going on once they open you up – was not on the radiographs and scans. When you think about it, call it an art, craft, skill, it all requires a knowledge and skill set that is worlds apart from other endeavors. Every part of their touch has consequences. Nothing they do does not stay with you for the rest of your life, even the most perfectly healed scar.
I’ve patched a few people up in my day. Alone, making triage decisions in the middle of an uncomfortable moment in time, when seconds count. It’s not that precise really. But anyone who has been a first responder in a conflict zone understands the weight that accompanies the task. So with ONLY that in my distant history, I now find myself working across the table from a doctor who knows his way around the inside of a neck the way you might know the most intimate details of your spouses or lovers face. Every little line, every little freckle, details upon details upon details. This day, with only someone to pass us the tools/instruments of the task ahead, it’s just the two of us. What I am feeling as his second set of hands, would be best described as… inadequate by any measure you choose. All he knows for sure is that I have seen the blood and insides of people before, and I am not going to pass out from the visual of it all. Then the strangest of thoughts passes through my mind. Totally out of place, but totally real. I am in my fantasy sports camp. I’m about to play guitar with Eric Clapton. I’m about to preform surgery with Dr. Mark D DeLacure.
Mark has trained many surgeons over the years. The other three with us on this mission to Africa all learned their skills under this man in front of me. I assume that his calmness of having my semi-skilled persona across from him might be born of previously being the mentor to tons of first year surgical residents who pass through his life. But unlike the calm and focused person across from me, as we finish suturing down the drape to the patients neck with four simple stitches, I am not calm. I am actually thinking about not projecting my feelings. You know how you want to get it right, to show your dad that you can catch that pop up fly ball he just hit to you at the park? You are watching the ball and seeing it begin its arc towards the ground even with the sun forcing you to squint, and you are under it, at the ready, thinking if I miss it …… That is where I am as Mark is passed the first instrument to begin opening up our patient.