EARTH ANGELS: True Stories about Real People Who Bring Heaven to Earth
Published by Doubleday Books
And Smiles To Go Before I Sleep
by Lt. Commander Bill Goss, USN (Ret)
(excerpted from EARTH ANGELS; pages 141-145)
Three years ago, Dr. Bob Fisher told a thirty-eight -year-old Navy pilot that he might never smile again. The little bump plucked from the pilot's ear was not a fatty cyst, as had been initially diagnosed, but was instead a deep melanoma --- a deadly skin cancer caused by the sun.
Doctor Bob explained to the pilot that it was highly malignant and that removing it would require hours of drastic surgery on the face, neck, shoulder, and ear. Permanent facial paralysis was a real possibility (however long permanent might be for a person with such a bleak prognosis.)
That Navy pilot was me.
When I first met with Doctor Fisher, it was like talking soul to soul. We had a connection: we were both Naval officers of the same age, we each had pretty wives, stable marriages, and two beautiful children --- a boy and a girl. We were both men with wonderful lives. The only difference was that one of us had cancer and the other could save him.
During our first meeting, he explained that I had two options. One operation would not guarantee that all the cancer would be removed. The other operation was massive and could mean that my face would be left paralyzed, and that I might lose the ability to smile.
When I asked Doctor Bob what had happened to other patients who had discovered melanomas on their ears, he looked away thoughtfully for a moment and said, "Well . . .one moved away . . .and the other, well, I don't hear from him anymore."
As you can imagine, at that particular moment, his explanation was more than adequate. I didn't press him for details. I just took out photographs of my wife and kids and said, "Hey, I don't want to die. You have to help me 'cause you know where I'm coming from." I could tell how much this touched him. Then I asked, "What would you do if you were in my shoes?"
He said, "I don't know what to say, but if you were my son, I would tell you to do anything it takes to live." That left a strong impression on me. I was thinking, Why is he looking at me as his son when we are the same age? Then I realized that, because our lives were so similar, it would have been too much for him to imagine himself in my shoes. It was easier for him to see me as his son.
I knew he was days away from retirement and asked if someone else would be performing the operation. He said, "No, Bill I will be your surgeon. I'll be leaving the Navy a couple of days later, but I will be with you until then." He could have given the surgery to another doctor, but he didn't. He knew he was the person to save me.
I was putting my life in the hands of a doctor who wore beat-up docksiders that were so worn his toes stuck out of them. He was like a character from M.A.S.H. He didn't adhere to Navy regulations and he wasn't into protocol: he was just into being in that operating room and doing his job well.
The Navy wanted me to fly to Bethesda, Maryland's giant Navy hospital, for my operation. Bethesda had a reputation for having the finest specialists in this type of surgery. But I knew that Dr. Bob would do whatever it took to make sure I would be around to watch my kids grow up. We had a special connection and I believed in him.
Because he was leaving the Navy in just a few days and moving his family across the country, he had every reason to have his mind elsewhere --- but he didn't. He could have done my operation in five or six hours, which was typical for this kind of surgery, but he spent twelve. Had he rushed, he could have missed a lymph node or nicked a nerve. He removed over two hundred lymph nodes, two salivary glands, a trapezius muscle, a jugular vein, and half an ear. All the while, he carefully --- and I mean very carefully --- tried to avoid nicking any of the tiny nerves that are imbedded like spider webs throughout the face and neck --- nerves that if cut, would leave my face paralyzed and prevent me from being able to smile again.
Even though the Navy hadn't recommended that he do this extensive an operation, he had been determined to do it. The nurses took breaks during the long and tedious surgery, but Dr. Bob did not. You see, I was his baby, his responsibility, and his goal was to deliver me, twelve hours later, cancer-free and unparalyzed, to the recovery room.
When I woke up after the operation, Dr. Bob was standing over me. The first thing he said was, "Bill, make an 'O' with your lips and then blow." I did it, and then I saw a big smile on his face. He said quietly, "Thank God." It meant that he was confident. I would eventually get back my smile. It also meant that he had done his job well. To me, being a surgeon is like being a mechanic. Being a fine surgeon is like being an artist. Dr. Bob was a true artist.
The following morning a nurse came into my room and, while tucking in my sheets, said, "Your surgery was unbelievable. We could all tell Dr. Fisher cared so much about you. He always does everything so fast, but when he was in that operating room, he slowed down and took such care with you. He was determined to save your life."
I'll never forget when Dr. Bob walked in with the good news. He had sent a bag of frozen lymph nodes to Bethesda, and there was no trace of cancer. This meant that my chances of living were much improved. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, "My job is done." The next day, he was gone.
It took four or five months for my smile to completely return. I would have been glad simply to be alive, but the smile represented the preservation of my soul and my personality. Dr. Bob knew that.
I found out that he had moved to Minnesota, but when I tried to reach him, I learned that he had moved farther north, deep into Alaska.
Wherever you are now, Dr. Bob (could be the North Pole for all I know), I want to say thank you for being my Earth Angel --- and I'm saying this with the biggest, broadest smile you've ever seen! I believe that all doctors and nurses, at some time in their careers, serve as Earth Angels. Dr. Bob Fisher was an extraordinarily gifted doctor who went above and beyond for me.
I'd like to leave you with this little poem (with apologies to Robert Frost) ---
The woods are lonely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And smiles to go before I sleep,
And smiles to go before I sleep.