“Raise your right or left hand depending on whether you feel the source of sound… Well, you get the basic idea”, stammered the nurse. Her plaintive look suggested that she had all but forgotten the term ‘corresponding ear’ just moments before my auditory exam. Soon, a series of half-hearted salutes ensued as I raised my hands like some ambidextrous witness being sworn in. The nurse nodded disapprovingly. A few weeks later, in August 2002, an MRI confirmed a diagnosis of acoustic neuroma.
Surgery was my best option, announced the doctor. He reassured me that the operation would leave me deaf in only one ear and would likely result in no more than a massive facial scar. “In worst case scenario”, he proffered, “you’ll have some facial paralysis but, luckily, it’ll likely be limited to only one side of your face”. Finnish doctors were on the whole honest. They did not particularly relish operations as such procedures did little to increase their profit margin. They were as likely to discourage such an option as they were to recommend it.
As for my own predilections, I responded like many had before me: I immediately associated the word tumor with cancer and my decision was as simple as it was radical: cut, extract, burn, do what you have to, I don’t care about the possible complications, just rid me of the tumor before it grows into that fatal beast of mythological proportions.
My impulse for an all-out invasive procedure was accompanied by a sense of euphoria that I can only describe as the contemporary counterpart to the feeling had by self-flagellating medieval monks who believe they are ridding themselves of an evil spirit by unparalleled suffering. Our enthusiasm for surgery (i.e. the cut-it-out-at-all-costs ethos), is, I suspect, an atavistic response that shares much in common with our more ancient appetite for blood-letting. Still, the notion of permanently losing my hearing rankled. I did, after all, work with music and was equally dependent on overhearing other people’s conversations. As a playwright, poet and lyricist, I felt my world was in jeopardy. The last few years of successfully writing for music was all but threatened. If I could no longer discern the slightest nuances in phrasing, or the slightest shifts in mood, how could I possibly do justice while creating content. The stylistic devices demanded complimentary measures in step with the parallel progressions in music. It was worse than being Beethoven. It was being his deaf librettist – one tasked with coming up with just the right verse for accompanying his masterful movements.
Being stationed in Finland as a film studies professor, I felt the sudden urge to call my parents in New York and tell them what was decided. Since some peculiar response to the holocaust had left both my Hungarian Jewish parents wary of all forms of surgery – as though the practice came complete with twins and fatal levels of anesthesia, I reconsidered opting for their second opinion. Instead, I informed a member of my family who was anything but a sentimentalist. As a man of science, my Israeli relative was privy to all that was going on in the world of medicine and knew what needed to be done. Much to my surprise, he responded to my email with great expedience and concern: Ronny, contact a Dr. Gil Lederman. The man is on the forefront of viable cures both capable of thwarting most tumors and cancers while not incurring side-effects and the usual battery of damages associated with post-operative traumas. I suggest you Google: Stereotactic radiosurgery and his name. Don’t be shy. Write to him. You’re a writer, a former journalist, do your homework. Don’t operate. Find out the options first.
I did just that. But the more I found about his procedures, the more disheartened I became since the costs seemed astronomical compared to the free medical attention in Scandinavia. Nor did I have insurance. Dr. Lederman didn’t seem concerned with this. He asked to see a copy of my MRI and soon after wrote back that he would be willing to treat me if I could get myself to his hospital. Within weeks, in November 2002, I was back in New York visiting my family.
Another week past and I already had my first appointment. Meeting up with the idiosyncratic doctor made me aware that I was less in the presence of a pedant of medicine than in the presence of an inventor, an affable mad scientist of sorts who strutted about in white lab coat and alligator boots. Between some good discussions on Opera and contemporary music and how certain Indie films from Denmark were way better than the usual lot of Hollywood films, it was clear he was far more of an artist of science than he was a dry academic. It was also apparent that he took great delight in knowing what his patients were up to and in keeping up with their lives.
The treatment itself took place over 5 to 10 minute intervals over the course of six visits. The process was reminiscent from something done in Star Trek with a tricorder rather than something performed in a hospital. A helmet with holes throughout was lowered over one's head and beams of light were shot at the same point – each time from a different hole so as not to pass through the same areas more than once. This minimized damages to all the cells it passed through while nevertheless focusing enough radiation on the focal point where the tumor lay. I felt nothing. In fact, it felt as though nothing was happening. Somehow, I was convinced, I was sitting within a very large an expensive placebo machine whose sole purpose was to hum and induce meditation. By the time the process was over, I was less convinced than ever. It was only after a new MRI revealed that the tumor had begun to shrink and was, for all intents and purposes, dead that I realized the procedure had worked.
Returning to Finland, Lederman insisted on updates. Six months later, the Finnish neurologist who had earlier recommended an operation called me into his office and said “Your tumor has rapidly shrunk and has gone dormant – we believe it is in the process of dissipating”. Another six months later, another checkup confirmed that indeed this was the case and it had shrunk to a quarter of its size. In addition, my hearing did not further deteriorate. After 2 years time, there had even been a marked improvement in my hearing. Though it had not returned to its former self, certain nerves must have reconnected since there was a rise in the general level of hearing. My balance had likewise adjusted and I did not suffer any facial ticks or paralysis. Though I still suspect that overuse of my cell phone accounted to some degree in abetting the onset of my tumor, I am convinced that aside from not having developed this condition in the first place, Dr. Lederman’s approach to bring the tumor into a state of remission was by far the best course of action that could have been taken.