There can never be enough gratitude in the world. After I survived my cancer ordeal I had a lot of people to thank. And my greatest source of guilt by then was how little I had known about what people in the medical world do. Now I will never let myself forget again. I now know they do the ultimate work of all. It just doesn’t get any bigger than saving or improving peoples lives.
Two days after my surgery I came around in the intensive care unit of Liverpool University Hospital. I was more machine than man. I was breathing through a tracheotomy and being fed directly into my stomach by a peg tube. I also had about 15 other tubes coming out of me and my face looked like a scene from the Elephant Man. I could not walk, talk, eat, drink or sleep and although the medication took care of the severe pain, I was cocooned in a personal agony of what can be best described as 24 hour discomfort. They will forever remain as the toughest days of my life.
The following day, Simon Rogers, my surgeon, came and sat on the end of my bed. He began to describe all that had taken place during the course of my operation. They had cut from ear across to my nose, broke my jaw and cut right down to my Adams apple. Then they folded away my jaw but before they could go after the tumour they had to sever all of the many nerves and muscles running through my face to my brain. This was very intricate work by itself and each one had to be carefully positioned for later re-connection. Next they removed as much of the soft tissue material they could find. The tumor had filled my sinus pocket and was running around my eye and right up against my brain stem. They removed half of the roof of my mouth and half of my top set of teeth. He told me that they spent hours working within millimetres of both my brain and spine.
My tumor however was so advanced that after it had finished with all of the soft tissue available it began to eat into my bones. So the next job was to remove a substantial part of my cheekbones. When that was done they were satisfied that they had surgically removed as much of the tumor as they could access. The re-building process could now begin. I was now lying there with a massive hole in the middle of my face.
They first took a slice of bone off my hip and re-shaped it so that it could be used to re-build the cheek. Then they took tissue from my stomach to help fill out the void to my face. Lining was also taken from my stomach which was used to re-seal the roof of my mouth. Then it was time to re-connect the engine to the car and reinstate all of the nerves, tendons and muscles that had been severed earlier. The next job after that was to put the jaw back in place, as best they could, with the freshly re-modelled cheek. And finally it was time for some stitching, first to my abdomen where they had accessed my hip and stomach and then 130 painstaking stitches to close up the wound to my face. These were miniscule to minimize the possibility of facial scarring.
He told me it was as big as surgery comes. Everything would remain very critical for many weeks to come. It was on a par with what would be required after a major car accident. The operation lasted 12 hours and he said that by the end they were all exhausted. Their work in the last hour was just as critical as the work in the first. The removal of the tumor around the brain stem was especially stressful as any slip would have been catastrophic.
For all the time Simon Rogers was speaking I was simply in awe of this man. A 12 hour day is a long day for anybody but these incredible people had spent 12 hours deconstructing the head of another human being. Their concerns afterwards were not just limited to how well the tumor had been removed, but also to how well that head would ever function again.
That head belonged to me!
I just felt so guilty as he sat there describing the work he had just done. Surely there is no greater work than this. I needed these men and women much more than they will ever need me. But I had no awareness, whatsoever, of the work they did until now. My need from them was the ultimate need of all. The need to stay alive. All of this comes home to you when your surgeon sits on the end of your bed and describes the work he does. Without people like him, there would not be people like me.
My requirement to be grateful is probably greater than most. But gratitude is always a great human quality. It keeps us humble.
And all of us have many things to be thankful for. We will all derive great benefit, if we make sure we connect with that, at some point, of every single day of our lives.