Behind the Scenes

Here it is, three years and three days post-surgery. I failed to celebrate the three-year anniversary of my thoracotomy and lobectomy, the outcome of which was to prevent me from dying of lung cancer. On reflection, three days after the anniversary date, I think it appropriate to express appreciation for the enormity of the efforts undertaken on my behalf. Not just the surgery, performed by Dr. Jason L. Muesse and his surgical team, but for the doctors and researchers and other scientists and inventors who made it possible for a patient to survive such traumatic, invasive procedures as thoracic surgery.

Imagine everyone involved in learning the processes and requirements that led to: sterile operating room conditions; special instruments to cut into the body, evacuate blood, monitor heart rate and blood pressure and brain waves, etc.; reliably clean surgical gowns and masks and draping; anesthesia processes and products…the list could go on for weeks. Every piece of equipment has a history of product development and refinement. Every member of the operating room team and post-op recovery team spent literally years absorbing knowledge and perfecting skills. Even the architects and construction professionals involved in designing and building the hospital and its surgery theaters should be acknowledged for their role in saving people, thereby keeping families intact and preventing overwhelming grief from washing over people not ready to face the reality that mortality is not a myth.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe doctors are gods, nor are all the people involved in today’s medical establishment heroes. If I believed in the concept of sin, I would say many aspects of the insurance bureaucracy constitute sins against Man and Nature. Doctors and nurses are mere mortals who, in the right circumstances, help delay death and keep the pain of injury and illness at bay. But everyone involved in any aspect (even tangential to) of the various fields of medicine deserves recognition and appreciation for the roles they play in keeping us adequately healthy and alive.

I think humility is an appropriate response to what can seem to be the miracles of modern medicine. Even in light of its failures, medicine is extraordinary. Even when doctors cannot perform miracles—when patients die, leaving survivors in unspeakably difficult mental anguish—appreciation for valiant efforts is, at minimum, appropriate.

Three years after what could have been a brush with death, I am more than a little grateful for medicine. As much as I think the medical establishment is rife with greed, merciless indifference, and inefficiencies, I am delighted to have been (and to continue to be) an appreciative recipient of its capacity to heal me.


Though I remain skeptical, curmudgeonly, and more than a little suspicious of the motives of humankind, I find myself mellowing in my old age. While enormous numbers of people can be counted as parasitic thorns in the side of human decency—and, therefore, deserving of unemotional extermination—quite a few of those who remain are, by all measures, fundamentally good. And those good people merit our goodwill and appreciation.

It’s odd, though. The older I get, the more certain I become that many people—maybe most—simply are fundamentally rotten to the core. But at the same time, I become more and more positive that there are huge numbers of good ones who should be acknowledged for their goodness. Why I see that big divide is beyond me. I find it interesting that few people seem to fall in the middle between the two.

Another oddity: it’s hard to know into which camp people fall until they are past child-bearing age. So, while it would be great to be able to discourage the bad apples from procreating, one can’t be sure who the bad apples are until after their children have already inherited their bad genes. My solution would be to simply skip at least one complete generation. But that wouldn’t really solve the problem. It would simply give us a breather. Which wouldn’t be bad. But it would be equivalent to kicking the can down the road a bit. We do that too often already. Look at Congress and its propensity to delay action on urgent items until it’s too late to take action.


I did not buy milk yesterday, so again we cannot have cereal for breakfast. I did not thaw bacon yesterday, so we cannot have bacon and eggs. I did not make congee this morning, so that item will not be on the menu today. I would like very much to go out for breakfast to First Watch. But the nearest location is three-plus hours from home, so that’s out. Life is such a challenge. But I prefer challenges to the certainty of their perennial absence. I’ll figure something out for breakfast.


My IC and I talked yesterday about how hard it has been, during times of extremely challenging emotional stress, to reach out to ask for help. Or even to ask someone to sit quietly with us as we go through the experience. I think people who have extremely close friends and who think of themselves as worth others’ time are better equipped than the rest of us. People who question their own value have a harder time because they assume any offer of a gift of time will be made from another’s feeling of uncomfortable obligation rather than a sense of a genuine desire to help. The problem with not asking for, or even rejecting, help is that there may come a time when it’s too late. I’ve sensed that I’ve gone too long being afraid to accept help. By the time I’m willing to accept it, the offer has faded or the hugs are no longer available. Emotions are far more difficult to heal than are cuts and scrapes. Just some out-of-the-blue thoughts on a topic often on my mind.


I am ready for another cup of coffee. I wonder why my mind is so much on appreciation of late. Thanksgiving usually does not do that to me. And it’s not Thanksgiving that’s doing it this year, either.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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