I sit here writing this from room 437 of Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. I am a few days out from major abdominal surgery, something called the Whipple Procedure. Never having had any major surgery in my entire life, the experience is a rude awakening in the ways of the body under siege and the ways of modern medicine. How I got here is the story I would like to tell you.
A little backround. I am a 55 year old male, living in Encinitas, one of the yoga capitals of the world, and yes, I am a yoga teacher, as well as a bodyworker and wedding officiant. I surf. I have an organic garden. No tobacco, no alcohol to excess, plenty of exercise, no red meat. Basically, up until about 2 months ago, I was in excellent health; or so I thought. Sometime late last year, I started experiencing some days of fatigue and lassitude, much to the dismay of my beautiful wife. But up until the end of January, I was still surfing sizable overhead waves, having some great yoga sessions and working the winter garden. However, by early February, it became clear that something wasn’t right. I started manifesting the symptoms of liver dysfunction. I was able to carry on while I researched what my symptoms might mean. It seems likely it could be gall stones, especially since they run in my family, and since they are common in the Native Americans of the southwest and northern Mexico, of which I share some DNA. With a referral from a yoga student, I saw a GP (General Practitioner MD) with great knowledge of natural healing. He agreed that gall stones was a possibility, and sent me for a sonogram to confirm the diagnosis. But alas, the sonogram showed a clear gall bladder. But there was no doubt I had a blocked bile duct, and in fact was starting to manifest jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes caused by a backlog of bile into the blood stream. And the fatigue and digestion issues had become much more intense. So an MRI was ordered, and there it was, a “mass” on my pancreas, blocking the bile duct. Then things really started to happen fast.
I was referred to a gastro-enterologist in La Jolla, who laid it out for me. I needed surgery, and I needed it quick. This was a stunning development. It was apparent that pancreatic cancer, even the possibility of it, was nothing to mess around with. I was immediately referred one story down to a gastric surgeon named Dr. Sunil Bhoyrul. Thank god my wife was with me, because my head was spinning.Waiting in the exam room, I knew my life was about to change dramatically. In walked Dr. Bhoyrul, who graciously and articulately, without any hint of condescension, laid out the details of the Whipple Procedure, and said he had already cleared out his schedule on the next Wednesday for this. This clear eyed man of Indian descent with a slight British accent was fully present, and as a long time meditator, I recognized the clarity he brought to bear on my situation. Still, my impulse was to run out of that office and never come back. But I didn’t, mostly because of the incredible persona of the good Doctor. As we sat in stunned silence in a waiting area, getting ready to fill out some forms, I glanced into his private office and there, on his window sill, was a statue of Ganesh, the elephant headed god of Hindu mythology. Suddenly, I knew that I had come to the right place. Ganesh is known as the “remover of obstacles” and certainly my situation fell into that category. I pointed out Ganesh to my wife, and she gifted me with a smile and squeezed my hand.
The next day was a whirl of blood draws, EKGs, hospital forms, etc. During a meeting with Dr. Bhoyrul, he invited us into his private office, where we saw 4 more images of Ganesh. I shared with him my appreciation of this and my personal connection with the elephant headed son of Shiva. He warmly shared with us a story from the annals of Ganesh mythology and also shared that his first name, Sunil, is another name for Shiva. This was meaningful to me, in that Shiva, among the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, is the “yogi god” and the patron and protector of yogis. Again, I had the feeling that I had been led to this kind man’s care. He also shared how he meditates before surgery. But the day was not without drama. A last minute CT Scan was ordered, to make sure that I was in fact even a candidate for this potentially lifesaving operation. This involved another trip to the imaging center at the hospital, drinking an awful, milky liquid, waiting 20 minutes, and taking an IV that seemed the size of a garden hose before the actual scan. Finally Dr. Bhoyrul called around 5pm and, having reviewed the images, assured me we were good to go. My wife and I finally exhaled.
The weekend was a tough one, since I was growing weaker by the day, and like the great sage Tom Petty once said, “the waiting is the hardest part”. We came to call the day of surgery “Big Wednesday” after an old surf movie. Interestingly, to pass the time that weekend, we watched a show on TV called “House Hunters International”, and this episode happened to take place in the Seychelles. There, in one of the houses being viewed, Ganesh made an appearance! A rather large statue of our now favorite Deity came with the house, apparently. The days passed slowly as we put our affairs in order in preparation for the surgery. Tuesday evening, my wife and I watched the sun set over the Pacific, grateful that we live in such a beautiful place.
Check in at the hospital was at 5:30 am, so we awoke in the dark and I showered with the special surgical soap and off we went. I got my hospital bracelet, changed my clothes, and was ushered into the pre-op area, with my wife; Amy is her name, by my side. The pre-op rituals were done, the IVs poked and taped, and for a few moments it was just Amy and me, holding hands. I couldn’t get enough of her pretty blue eyes, and drank of them with all my might. We both teared up when she reminisced about our first date. No man could ask for a sweeter moment from his woman.
Dr. Bhoyrul showed up, with another esteemed colleague, Dr. Hyde, who had agreed to sit in on the surgery. I was very fortunate to have not one but two top surgeons on the case. They appraised my abdomen, expressing happiness that I wasn’t over weight. Then it was time. I once again expressed my love to Amy, and, turning to Dr. B, made a fist for a fist bump and said, “Jai shri Ganesha, Doc”. My thinking was that if I should not make it out of surgery, at least my last words would be professions of love and the name of God on my lips. But Instead of a fist bump, the good doctor’s eyes seemed to moisten and he took my fist in his hands and held it to his heart, and said “Yes! Yes, Jai shri Ganesha! We will take good care of you!” I could now relax into my fate, and the last thing I remember is being wheeled into the Operating Room and scooting over onto the table under the lights.
I awoke about 6 hours later in the SICU (Surgical Intensive Care Unit), hooked up to a truly amazing array of IVs, monitors, catheters, tubes. Family members made a brief visit, but I admit it is all pretty hazy. After one night in SICU, I was transferred to the room where I now sit. I will say this: some people believe in angels, the kind with wings and halos. But the angels I believe in wear hospital scrubs and purple gloves and sort out complex issues with IVs and feeding tubes at all hours of the day and night and do everything in their power to make you as comfortable as possible during this intense ordeal. Truly, the nursing staff of this hospital has earned my undying gratitude and affection.
Dr. Bhoyrul checks on me twice a day, and assures me that I am recovering very well, the best possible outcome for such major surgery. His visits are a bright spot of my days in here, in that we often spend a few minutes discussing philosophy, or poetry, or some such before getting down to the medical details of my recovery. The words of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore were of great solace to me while in hospital. As the infomercial says,” But wait! There’s more!” The kind doctor made his apologies for a day off his rounds on Sunday, and had a colleague check in on me. He most certainly had earned some time with his family. But being in the hospital means you have a lot of time on your hands and Sunday evening found me watching “The Amazing Race” on network TV. I chose to do this for two reasons: one, Amy often likes to watch this show, and watching it made me feel close to her; and two, this leg of the race took them to India, which piqued my interest. Well, now it really gets curiouser and curiouser, because one of the tasks the contestants were given was to paint and decorate a statue. Not just any statue, mind you, but, you guessed it, a statue of ...Ganesh! As I watched yet another strange coincidence with my elephant headed benefactor, who walks in but Dr. Bhoyrul! All I could do was to point at the television and say, “Look! Ganesh!” Even the kind doctor was amazed at the timing, and sat down shaking his head at the nearly surreal coincidence. He explained that he hadn’t planned to visit, but had to stop by his office (in the medical building next to the hospital) and decided to check in on me anyway. Between Ganesh and a doctor named after Shiva, I guess I was in good hands.
All this being said, the news wasn’t all good. The lab report came back and Dr. B didn’t mince words. Adenocarcinoma, stage 3. Not what we had hoped to hear, but certainly what we expected. Not the worst diagnosis, not the best, really right down the middle of the road. I am being referred to an Oncologist. Another mountain to climb, I suppose.
I hope to be released on the second “Big Wednesday” one week post surgery. I can’t wait to get back to the love of my family and the comfort of my home. I will pack up my two small statues of Ganesh that have sat in my hospital room, and return to my home in Encinitas to see what the future holds. The rest of this story remains to be written. Thanks for listening to my journey so far.