I don’t know how many times I heard “That will never happen to me” and I believed it, I never thought something like this could happen to me, until it did, and my world came crashing down.
Five years ago I was on a business trip and I did what you should never do on a business trip, I ate fish for dinner. That night in my hotel room I began to get very sick. It started with a dull pain in my side and quickly spiraled out of control. I stayed up all night thinking I had a bad case of food poisoning and by eight o’clock the next morning instead of going to my meeting I took myself to Urgent Care. I spent several hours being treated for dehydration and soon I began to feel better. I made it home and about a week later, I still was not feeling normal and decided that I better see my doctor. She listened to me as I told her what had been going on and was not convinced that what I had experienced had been food poisoning. She sent me to get an ultrasound to check out my gallbladder, as all my symptoms were indicative of a gallbladder attack. It quickly became clear to the ultrasound technician that my gallbladder was completely full of stones, as my doctor had suspected. As I lay there under the scrutiny of the ultrasound wand, the technician by chance (or by the hand of God) rolled the wand over my chest. She wouldn’t say anything, but she kept it there and stared intently at the monitor. I could tell that she was trying not to appear to be concerned. I wanted to ask why she was looking in my chest when my gall bladder was several inches lower but I didn’t. She eventually printed a few pictures, smiled and told me the doctor would discuss the results with me.
I was always healthy. I took care of myself, ate right and exercised but in the past few years I had developed high blood pressure. The doctors did not know why. They just put me on medication and every few months I would go in for a test and they would increase my dose a little more. My doctor was becoming increasingly more concerned and told me that I absolutely had to get rid of whatever was causing me so much anxiety and calm down. I didn’t have anxiety and I really had very little stress in my life. I felt fine. It was frustrating.
A few days later I received a call from my doctor. “Your gallbladder definitely needs to come out but there is something else that unexpectedly showed up too. It’s a mass. It looks to be on the liver or pancreas”. My heart fell. No one could tell me what the mass was, only that it was there and it would cause complications during a gallbladder surgery. Finally, the radiologist suggested that I do a blood test just to rule out a very rare adrenal tumor called a Pheocromocytoma. My doctor agreed that it would be wise to take the test as a precaution. Even though the chances were extremely slim that the test would come back positive, we needed to figure out what the mass was and if ruling things out got us closer to the answer, that’s what we would do. I went to the hospital to do the blood test and then headed back to work feeling like I was wasting my time and wishing there was a way to find out what this mass was instead of what it wasn’t.
Several days later, I was sitting in my office when I received a call from my doctor. The tone in her voice concerned me immediately. “Wendy, the test results came back for the tumor. It’s positive. It appears to be on your pancreas. You will need surgery right away.” She told me she was going to get in touch with University Hospital in Denver. There happened to be one surgeon there who had theoretical knowledge of a pheochromocytoma and he might have some idea as to how to go about removing it- if removal was possible. I hung up the phone and sat in the office numb. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think anything except… My pancreas? I’m going to die. Just then a co-worker came in to see if I was ok. She cried with me, and silently sat with me until finally she said, “Wendy you have to call Joe (my husband)”. His office was right across the street from mine. I knew he would be there in two minutes but I just wasn’t ready. I couldn’t figure out how in the world I was going to tell him this news, I couldn’t even get my own brain wrapped around it. Finally I called him. We sat in my car in front of my office and cried.
I went to University Hospital and began to complete a string of tests. I met with my surgeon, one of the best at the hospital. He was a very confident man, as all surgeons must be but he was also honest enough to be straight with me. He showed me my test results and explained that he could not tell exactly what the tumor was sitting on but that it did not look good. It appeared to be fairly large and because it is an adrenal tumor it was full of adrenaline (this is why I had high blood pressure and anxiety) so extracting it would be very tricky. The anesthesiologist would have to be very skilled as the tumor would release excessive amounts of adrenaline during the surgery. This could cause me to stroke out if not skillfully controlled. Also, because this was such a rare tumor, he, nor anyone else in the state had any practical experience for how to handle this. Oh, this just kept getting better. We had our second meeting with him about a week before my surgery. He told us that the tumor looked to be encapsulated and hopefully was not malignant (full of cancer) but that was certainly a possibility.
As a Christian, I have always believed in the power of prayer and that our lives and fate are in the hands of our creator, God. I am a type A personality. For me to give up control is not easy but I knew that this was completely out of my hands. Even the doctors did not seem to be confident. In the weeks of waiting for the surgery I prayed so much more earnestly that I ever have in my life. God showed me a Scripture verse and when He did it was like I could hear His voice telling me to listen. Psalm 62:1-2 says, “Truly my soul finds rest in God”. Yes, He is my refuge, I will never be shaken”. Verses 11-12 go on to say, “Power belongs to you God and with you Lord, is unfailing love”. Wow! I had never experienced that kind of instant peace and absolute calm that my God was with me. I knew He had this.
Finally, December 6, 2012 arrived. The day of my surgery. I was calm but begging God to let me make it through to see my husband, kids and grandkids again. As they laid me on the table two surgeons looked over me. All I could see was their eyes. I had to tell them…. “Just one thing”, I said. “I am praying that God’s hands are your hands”. I saw their eyes cut over to each other and I could just imagine what they were thinking. They had a religious fanatic on the table. I woke up in recovery with two people over me unwrapping endless amounts of lines and machinery. My very first thought as I came to consciousness was, “Thank you Jesus! I made it!” I immediately asked if I could see my husband. They agreed to only 5 minutes. Oh what a wonderful sight he was. I looked at him, smiled, took his hand and fell back into a peaceful sleep.
After not eating and being in ICU for 5 days I was finally ready to move into a room. I was the most popular patient in the hospital. Every doctor and nurse there came by to see me and every one of them was amazed. What a miracle it was that I was alive. Even my surgeon came by and confided in me that mine was the hardest and most touch and go surgery he has ever performed. While I was lying on that table, he realized that the tumor was against my vena cava. It was much bigger than anyone thought and had actually moved several of my organs around. He panicked as he realized that the chances of him being able to get the tumor without damaging organs or nicking my heart were impossible. If not for me insisting that I did not want to come out of that surgery with that tumor still inside of me, no matter what, he would have sewn me back up with the hopes of giving me another six months or so to be with my family before the tumor took my life. He told me the story that as he stood in that operating room frantically weighing his options and having no idea how to proceed, he looked up into the observation room, where several students sat watching the surgery. He saw one of the residents eating peanuts and suddenly knew what he had to do. He immediately had several peanut shells sterilized and began using them to, layer by layer, scrape the tumor off of my heart. He said it came off like butter. Everyone was in shock. He confided to me that he had never been a believer in God, but even he could admit that there was certainly some kind of divine intervention in that surgical bay that day.
I went home on the seventh day after my surgery and began a seven-week recovery. On December 22, I went to my post op to hear the results of the biopsy on the tumor. It was malignant. Everything about this thing was the most unexpected scenario. The rarest. Because the tumor is so slow growing, so I didn’t have to endure chemo or radiation. My surgeon was confident that he got it all as he took 2 lymph nodes and as much of the surrounding area as possible. This was still scary news to hear, but I was lucky to be alive and I wasn’t about to take that for granted. That Christmas was one of the most beautiful. I knew how blessed I was and I was thankful for every second of it.
This year I will celebrate 5 years since my surgery. I just had my annual visit and my oncologist assures me that everything look great. The funny thing is that none of my organs ever shifted back once the tumor was gone. If you were to see an X-Ray of me, you would clearly see that everything is a little out of place and that right behind my heart, there is a hole that will probably always be there. That hole does not symbolize emptiness, though. That is a hole full of grace and mercy. It is a hole of salvation and a reminder of a God who is bigger than this world, who in fact holds this world in his hands. That hole is a reminder that even someone as small and insignificant as me has the love and protection of a God of miracles.
Be sure to check out this article and many others in our magazine, Issue 9!