One Patient I’ll Never Forget

We frequently hear about how doctors change patients’ lives. What if the tables were turned?  Can a patient change a doctor’s life?   The answer is not so obvious and may surprise you.

As a Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, a big part of my job is listening. Listening to a patient’s complaints, worries about their state of health, their life circumstances, their disappointments and their hopes. Much of my work involves removing various types of Cancer from the head and neck, including Skin Cancer. Typically, those I see with Skin Cancer are older, many in their 70s and 80s.  Unfortunately, with this age group, they tend to experience Skin Cancer such as Basal Cell Carcinoma or Squamous Cell Carcinoma more than once.

One patient who came to see me with Skin Cancer was an elderly man named Thomas. He was 85 years of age. He was sharp as a tack and gregarious. He made me laugh as we talked and joked about so many topics during his appointments. What stood out to me was that he never complained. About anything. Not even when I informed him that he had Skin Cancer that needed to be excised, neither before nor after I operated on him and neither at his follow up appointments. This is markedly different from my doctor experience when Cancer is involved.

Thomas came to see me many more times over the years and well into his ninth decade in life. Each time he had to undergo surgery, he never complained and continued to be that fun, talkative gentleman with the same sparkle in his eye he had at 85 when I first met him.  I wanted to know his secret.  He asked me about my family and history and I asked him about his. He started talking and I listened.

My patient, Thomas Stivale, is a WWII Army veteran.  He was born in 1919 and said, “We didn’t have doctors back then. We were all delivered by mid-wife. I was brought up on goat’s milk.”  He graduated from Bloomfield High School in 1938 and became a Paratrooper in the 82 Airborne Division.  He discussed events that surrounded him during this time, the people with whom he lived and his thoughts as a young soldier incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war deep within Nazi Germany for close to two years. I continued to listen intently.

On April 29, 1943, he was shipped from New York to Europe and then to Oujda, Africa.  He and his outfit were flown from Oujda over Sicily for a nighttime jump into enemy territory. The next day, he says, he didn’t know where he was.  “Four German SS guards showed up and I had three hand grenades and 150 rounds.  What could I do? The first thing they did when I put my hands up was take my watch.”  It was his first combat jump.  He was taken in a box car with 40 other prisoners to Germany over the course of what he said were, “five miserable days.”

Thomas and the other prisoners worked on a potato farm around the area of the camp.  The biggest potatoes would go to Hitler and the smallest were to feed pigs. They received censured letters from home where the Germans would black out the words “I love you.”  The prisoners had no connection to the outside world.

In Thomas’s diary, which he kept during this time, is a quote from St. Paul under the heading of “A Prisoner’s Prayer”.  It reads, “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, instant in prayer.” Thomas then wrote, “Here I am a Prisoner of War in Germany, and thinking to myself, it was better for me to come over here that to have them go over there.  Tears may come to my eyes but they are tears not to be forgotten for home sickness does that to me.”

Thomas was freed May 2, 1945. “Freedom at last,” he said yet immediately was captured by Russians and one of his friends was shot. “Would never want to live that day over. I was in Russian hands for two days.”  Finally, on May 4, 1945, Thomas was on his way to America and back into the arms of his fiancée, Pauline.

Thomas, a good-natured and patriotic POW at 97 years young, may have all the physical signs of aging but he is humble, sharp, fearless and still likes to go bowling on Thursdays. He keeps ticking with a contagious smile on his face. That’s perseverance and that’s hope. Thomas makes a conscious decision to live his life with this positive state of mind and age truly becomes just a number.

It is an incredible honor for me to be able to treat a WWII survivor and hero. We often forget our elders and what they can teach us. Thomas is the perfect example of why we should never forget them; how we can learn from their wisdom and experience to better our lives and be determined, like Thomas, to live with perseverance and hope. This he has done for me.

Thomas Stivale WWII Hero

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