Hitting 90, and still here . . .

 
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I have been a family GP at the same Sydney suburban address since 1955. Seeing 30 patients a day, five days a week adds up. I did this until I retired at age 75, well past the usual “cease work” age. I worked because I considered it “play-time”, an enjoyable pastime that I enjoyed.

It also kept my neurons working—seeing patients plus the need to continue to read the five weekly medical journals I had been receiving since I became a doctor in 1953. I’m an incessant reader, hoarder and index freak—it’s the only way to keep up to date in the fast moving world of medicine.

In all those years, I only took two weeks off due to illness. I developed a severe flu in 1972, when I simply fell to the floor unconscious while listening to a patient. The patient thought I had sustained a heart attack and dialed 000. The next thing I knew, a team of paramedics was checking me over. After a series of on site tests they decided it wasn’t a heart attack, so they packed up and left. I got up off the floor and continued the consultation, with the patient more shaken than I.

Wrong end of the knife

Fast-forward through 40 healthy, productive years to January 12, 2012, when I was enjoying morning tea on the lawn at Surfers Paradise with my youngest son, Peter, an accountant.

“What’s that lump on your neck?” he casually asked.

Doctors don’t like unexpected lumps anywhere, so I hastened to a mirror. I observed a marble-sized thing just under my jawbone. Fortunately, I had to fly to a social function in Sydney the next morning, where a specialist friend would also be in attendance.

“Take a look at this JB,” I asked him in a quiet corner at the event.

“Hmm,” he replied, frowning. “I don’t like it. We’ll get some tests done. Like, right now. I’ll phone the radiologist.”

A couple of hours later, my fax spat out a report: “Squamous celled carcinoma” located at the base of the tongue. My name on top. Now I was really unhappy. I phoned my doctor friend again and within an hour was in the throat cancer clinic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, arguably the world’s most advanced throat cancer clinic.

First they extracted all the roots of my old teeth. Next I was presented to some of Sydney’s top throat cancer specialists: “There’s no doubt. It’s an aggressive, fast growing cancer at the base of your tongue. Instant treatment is essential,” I was told. So for 30 days friends transported me for treatments. Plus chemotherapy.

Within a very short time, blisters appeared on my chest, face and scalp. As they coalesced, there was hardly any skin on me from torso to scalp. It was agonising—hot and painful. It felt as though a red-hot brick was stuck in my chest just behind the sternum. Then little by little, everything subsided.

My wife, Noreen, spent two hours each day dressing the raw flesh and within a few months it had healed. We returned to the oncologists for a review: “Cured,” one said as he checked a PET scan. “You’ll be okay.”

At home, I sat with my wife in the sun and rejoiced. Cured after all that pain and misery. We went to bed contented. Then, sadly, my beautiful wife failed to wake the next morning! I put out my hand to hers as I did each morning as a greeting. I felt her icy arm, her open eyes, lifeless.

Bittersweet. I buried her a few days later, myself in a wheelchair, recuperating.

It doesn’t end there

As my older brother Ron, also a doctor, had died of bowel cancer at the relatively young age of 62, I subjected myself to a full endoscopy-colonoscopy every 15 months, even though three-yearly is the norm. But in February 2017, five years after Noreen was laid to rest, I noticed some hesitancy in the specialist after my regular test. He phoned me the following day. “I’m sorry, John, but I have to advise you that there is a well formed cancer in your colon (large bowel). You need immediate surgery.”

What? Two serious cancers so close together! Even as a doctor, I’d never heard of this. Within two days I was ensconced in hospital, where I had worked for 40 years seeing patients but also where I had appeared in many television reports.

Now I was the victim, the unwilling casualty of an inevitably fatal disease unless operated on. But in the hands of an eminent laparoscopic (keyhole) surgeon, at one month on, the operation appears to have been successful. “This will take a bit of time to heal,” the kindly surgeon intoned.

And a couple of months on, I’m recuperating. I also turned 90!

In reflection

Working under a pseudonym—using your actual name would mean deregistration—I’ve spent my life in the glare of the national media. Beginning in 1980, Sydney’s Radio 2GB asked for a daily “health capsule”—simple tips on keeping healthy—to be syndicated to their Australia-wide network. And last year the 9500th “capsule” went to air.

It’s ironic that now I’m the victim. But I still manage to live independently, healthy and happy, and caring for myself, so I’m not complaining.

How did I survive two bouts of serious life-threatening cancer?

First, I was born into a Christian family, who believed in an Almighty Power—God our Creator—and consequently, in miracles. And it seems He still has work for me to do on His behalf. Back in 1971, my wife Noreen and I established a not-for-profit charity called the Medi Aid Centre Foundation. Its mission is to provide housing for elderly widows in need. It currently has 1000 residences, housing some 500 widows, with the other properties commercially let to fund them.

It is God, I believe, who has saved my life multiple times, albeit by inspiring the medical technology, and by providing medicos—from nurses to eminent surgeons—to care for me when I needed them. My dear mother lived to within a whisker of 100, so it seems God also gave me the right genes.

“But such is life,” you might say. “Serendipity at work . . .”

But I say, “Thank you, God, for your care and guidance in my life. And even though I’ve just hit 90, You have more for me to accomplish in Your name. There are a lot more elderly widows to care for, before I depart Planet Earth.”