Guest column Lee Wicks: Local treasures at our local hospital

  • Dr. Michelle Helms, a surgeon at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. submitted photo

Published: 6/8/2019 12:43:12 AM

I whined. In the locker room at the gym I told my friends I didn’t want to do it. I hated the prep. Then a friend told me her mother died from colon cancer, and I should be nothing but happy that we can test and get it early. There’s no argument for that.

A couple of weeks later I woke from a colonoscopy and learned that my doctor had found a large polyp that might be malignant and would need to be surgically removed, a polyp that developed in the five years since my last colonoscopy. I was scared. I started naming all the people I know who have survived cancer, and the ones who didn’t.

Spoiler alert: this story has a happy ending, but before we get there, I’d like to bring you on the journey, one that began with uncertainty because the gastroenterologist I’ve had for years retired.

This is happening to all my friends, so here’s message number one. Do not worry. Those revered doctors have been replaced by talented young professionals, many of them women, and in my case home grown.

Dr. Michal Ganz from Hampshire Gastroenterology Associates was raised in Amherst. She’s a force. She was worried enough to move things along quickly. A biopsy, a CT scan that showed concerning shadows on my liver, then an MRI preceded my appointment with Dr. Michelle Helms, the surgeon she recommended.

Helms is known for her compassion. She’d read the MRI results before my appointment, and immediately told my husband and me that there was no cancer in the liver, the site where colon cancer most often metastasizes. Whew. We’d been torturing ourselves with worry all week. But our worries weren’t completely over. Once out and fully investigated, that nasty polyp might still contain cancer cells. It had to go.

Then with a bright smile she revealed her plan. She’d simply remove 6 inches of my colon with the polyp and some lymph nodes. She showed a diagram. She answered every question. She was ready to put this on her schedule. She radiated kindness and competence.

But I had not had surgery since my tonsils were removed at age 5. I must admit that my knees shook; it was hard to breathe. And I would have to do the dreaded colon cleansing once again.

This is when friends began asking if I was planning to seek a second opinion. Didn’t I want to go to Boston? Since Cooley Dickinson Hospital is associated with Mass General, this is easy to do. In fact, Dr. Helms had already told me she had no ego invested in this, and she’d be glad to send me to Boston for a consultation. I thought about it, but the surgery I needed wasn’t rare, and getting back and forth to Boston would have been complicated, and I really liked Dr. Helms. I felt I could trust her.

My husband and I eat locally sourced foods, we buy from locally owned stores and food co-ops. This, we decided, was the time to trust our local hospital.

And boy am I glad that we did.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital looks big to me, but it’s considered small. That makes it manageable, like going to a boutique hotel instead of a chain. It’s bright, clean and beautiful, but that’s not the most important thing.

Every single person I encountered there helped me heal. From Dr. Helm’s reassuring greeting shortly before surgery, to the nurses who took over afterward, to the kind people who brought food and medications and cleaned my room, I am grateful.

As a UMass graduate and occasional adjunct professor, I was thrilled to learn that so many nurses there trained at UMass, and some of the aids and interns also. My husband ran into old colleagues. In a conversation, a day nurse and I discovered friends in common.

I took a walk to the solarium and found one of my retired doctors. His wife had been admitted. He didn’t look worried. This is what can happen at a local hospital. Some may not savor the intimacy of small town life, but I love it.

The Friends and Neighbors column I wrote for the Amherst Bulletin and Daily Hampshire Gazette for 40 years ago was inspired by the power of human connections.

After two days, I was cleared to leave. Dr. Helms came by to tell me that there were no signs of cancer in that huge polyp. There are no sweeter words. I will need to be tested again in a year and then perhaps every three years because I’m a “fast grower.” That I knew when I was 12 and already towering over everyone in my class.

“Did I really have to do this?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she said, “This would have become cancer.” We hugged (gently) and I got dressed.

I am writing this on my second day home, just four days after surgery. Recovery from laparoscopic surgery is quicker, and I’m feeling tired but fine, needing only Tylenol for pain. No opiates were used at any time. To me, Dr. Helms is a hero. All surgeons are. How else to explain the courage needed to slice into another human’s fragile body?

My husband and I keep smiling at each other. It was scary. It is over. We are in our 70s, and things like this will happen. They will not be remarkable. But we are remarkably lucky to have access to excellent health care.

Excellence sounds like a buzzword until you meet it face to face at Cooley Dickinson and meet the team so dedicated to making you better.

Lee Wicks is a writer living in Montague. Before retiring she wrote for local papers and managed communications for independent schools.
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