The man amiably chatting with me while balancing canapes on a napkin happened to be the doctor who discovered the way to identify the exact lymph nodes cancer might have spread to, sparing patients protracted and involved surgeries. The term sentinel lymph node, which, if you know anything about breast cancer you will have surely heard, stems from that discovery, and millions of women have him to thank for not having to have their whole breasts and large chunks of their arms removed. Which, by the way, saves the health industry $3.2 billion a year in surgery costs.
How yours truly came about this information was by attending a presentation at John Wayne Cancer Center in Santa Monica where Dr. Donald Morten, the doctor in question, talked about such fascinating facts. At least, fascinating for hypochondriacs like me. While I was talking to Dr. Morten, a lovely, soft-spoken and generous older gentleman, it occurred to me that so many of those medical terms we throw around on a regular basis and that have become common parlance, have a face behind them. And years of dedicated research on the part of countless and faceless individuals slaving away in labs.
Cancer is possibly the scariest word a patient could be subjected to hear, a death sentence until a few decades ago and there is nothing miraculous in the leaps and bounds that science has made to come close to a cure. At a time when federal funds are shrinking on all fronts, it’s often up to wealthy business communities and rich donors around the country to contribute to research laboratories, requiring doctors to work as p.r. agents for their work in addition to the time they put into research and hospital duties. I am sure that’s not what was on their minds when they took the Hippocratic oath. Still, I am grateful for the dedication that many doctors put into their work, in the face of a collapsing health care system.
I am the annoying type of patient who needs to know the most minute details and finds reassurance in the knowledge of facts – my primary physician who has been taking care of me for the last 16 years is a model of patience in the face of my hypochondria – which is why I take enormous pleasure in associating a face with a condition or a procedure. If guardian angels exist, I would like to think they are embodied by those individuals who get up in the morning driven by the purpose of advancing science and medicine in particular. They don’t have wings but they make entering the meandering of the health care system a little less scary.