How Exercise (Probably) Saved My Life

Today I’m turning over my blog to my friend and boss (yes, those two things can go together), Andrew Schulman. I’ve been saving this to post now at the beginning of the year. I think it’s a good, positive story for a new year.

I hope you enjoy it and join me in wishing Andrew a very happy new year – we’re so very pleased to be able to say that!

Julie

HOW EXERCISE (PROBABLY) SAVED MY LIFE
By Andrew Schulman

I’ve known Julie Goodale since 1996 when she started subbing as a
violist in my string quintet, the Abaca String Band. A year later I
asked her to be the principal player, one of the better decisions I’ve
made as a bandleader.

Julie is a force of nature as anyone who knows her knows well. She
has the single most easily identifiable laugh on Earth (possibly on
Mars as well). When the group plays summer concerts outdoors and
I have to park some distance from the stage I can easily locate it
when she has arrived before me by zeroing in on that laugh, even if
it’s half a mile away. Seriously.

I remember well the night she informed me and the other players in
the group that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. We were
performing for a membership event at the Met Museum in NY and
just before we started she told us about it. She was clearly scared
but also clearly up to taking on the challenge. And watching her
progress through all the stages of the medical journey was also a
lesson to me in how to be brave and resolute.

That was a good thing for me to have observed as this summer I
went through my own medical adventure.

In brief, a CT scan in July 2008 looking for something else (which
turned out to be no problem) revealed 2 cysts on my pancreas; one in
the head and one in the middle near the tail. A biopsy in late August
determined it was too early to know if the cysts were pre-cancerous
or benign, and a follow up scan was asked for and took place in June
2009.

In that scan it was observed that the cysts were unchanged, a good
sign, but something else showed up; a mass in the tail the size of a
walnut that four doctors considered to be highly suspicious for
pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has no symptoms until it is too
late, 75% of cases diagnosed are inoperable and the patient usually
dies within a year. The survival rate, living more than 2 years, of the
other 25% of cases is 4%.

We were able to find a highly renowned pancreas surgeon, Dr. Martin
Karpeh of Beth Israel Medical Center in NY, who fortunately accepted
our health insurance, the Atlantis Health plan of NY. The surgery
game plan was to go in first with a laparoscope to make sure it hadn’t
spread; a CT scan is not able to determine that conclusively. If it had,
surgery was over. If not, then proceed to remove the mass and the
cyst next to it and bring them immediately to the pathologist to
determine if they were both cancerous. It was assumed the mass
was, but less clear if the cyst was too. If the cyst was cancer then
Karpeh would remove the rest of the pancreas, as it would be
assumed that the cyst in the head of the pancreas was also cancer.

Almost 4 hours into the operation (pancreas surgery is extremely
complicated which is why so few surgeons specialize in it) Dr. Karpeh
carried the 60% of my pancreas just removed to the pathologist who
did the frozen sections procedure. When finished he informed him
that there was no cancer, not in the mass or the cyst. I’d just dodged
a major bullet.

What I had was a rare inflammation, a combination of acute and
chronic pancreatitis, which looks exactly like cancer. Acute
pancreatitis has very painful symptoms, but they simply hadn’t started
yet in my case.

Dr. Karpeh went back upstairs, put me back together, and while the
resident was dressing the wound he went to the waiting room to tell
the good news to my wife, who jumped for joy and then started cell
phoning all the family and friends she could. Then the next crisis
started. Dr. Karpeh was beeped and told to go immediately to the
ICU.

What had happened was that on the way to the ICU my body went
into total shock. Moments after I arrived there I was clinically dead
for a minute or so. I was resuscitated under the guidance of ICU
director Dr. Marvin McMillen and then put into a medically induced
coma for six days. Afterwards I found out from one of the nurses that
not a single doctor or nurse she spoke to in the ICU thought I would
survive during the first three days. However, by the end of the 3rd
day my body stabilized and I did in fact survive. (Either that or I died
and I am having a really cool dream in heaven (?) right now).

I also found out that several meetings had taken place that week in
the hospital, which I assumed were about why I had gone into shock.
I found out during my first follow up with the surgeon (2 weeks after
getting out of the hospital, I was there for 12 days) that the meetings
were about trying to figure out why I LIVED. BTW, they will never
know for sure why the shock happened, but the best guesses are that
there was an impurity in a blood transfusion, or some kind of allergic
reaction.

OK, here is the connection to exercise. Two weeks after I got home I
had my first follow-up visit with Dr. Karpeh. I asked him what his
opinion was as to why I survived the ordeal. He told me that they will
never know for certain but the likelihood was it was a combination of
fitness from exercise and genes. I also had several visits with an
endocrinologist, Dr. Jerome Tolbert, also of Beth Israel Medical
Center, and he expressed the same opinion.

Although I was about 50 pounds overweight, 230 pounds instead of
180 (I am now 195 heading to 180) I was very fit. I started going to a
gym 5 days/week a little over two years before the operation (at age
55) and I have two big dogs, 80-pound yellow labs, for whom I am on
a daily basis pack leader, main walker, and supreme tug o’ war
combatant. That high degree of fitness combined with the strong
physical resemblance to my Grandpa Max who lived to 97 and looked
like a heavyweight boxer into his nineties seemed to tilt the scales in
my favor. And keep in mind it was as close a call as it could be for 3
days (and anyone who has been clinically dead and then resuscitated
will tell you what a pleasure it is to tell people how great they feel ever
since they died).

So, as far as I know, exercise saved my life. The first exercise I did
after being woken from the coma, the next day, was walking with a
walker in the ICU. I was supposed to do 2 minutes that day; I did 10.
The next day I was supposed to do 10, I did 30 and challenged every
doctor and nurse that walked past me to a race to the end of the hall.
Normally, after a stay in the ICU you spend a day or so in Step-Down,
a ward a little less monitored than the ICU. However, my recovery
was so fast that the doctors decided to skip that and I was put in a
regular room. Late in the afternoon of the second day there they told
me I was well enough to go home the next day.

The main exercise when I got home was walking the halls in my
apartment building, and to certain extent, playing the guitar. After 12
days in the hospital, 6 in a coma, I could barely move my fingers well
enough to play a simple piece. I was able to return to the gym a few
days a week after 3 weeks and 5 weeks later I was back there five
days a week, sometimes six – my favorite exercises are the ellipsis
and rowing machines. And the dogs still try and beat me at tug o’
war, Paco can sometimes win, I sometimes let Dolly win.

I was back at my steady engagement three nights a week at the
InterContinental Hotel in Manhattan five weeks after being wheeled
out of the hospital.

I had to stop drinking alcohol, I drank 2-3 glasses of red wine a night
for many years, and my diet has changed, I will never be overweight
again, and that combination of things along with the steady exercise
means I feel physically better now than I can ever remember.

No one knows what the future will bring, but I highly recommend
staying in good physical condition via exercise and proper diet.

It can save your life.

This entry was posted in Andrew Schulman, exercise before surgery, pancreatic cancer, post surgery, recovery from surgery, surgery. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How Exercise (Probably) Saved My Life

  1. Wow, I really like Andrew’s writing style, especially his great sense of humor.

    Andrew

    P.S. I forgot to mention how helpful Julie was to me in a phone call 3 days after getting back from the hospital; it was about getting perspective on what I’d been through.

  2. julie says:

    Yes Andrew, he’s a real talent! (and happy to be of help besides just playing the right notes)

  3. Anonymous says:

    Inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  4. gillian says:

    Inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks,

    Andrew “Big Believer In Exercise” Schulman

  6. Ashlyn says:

    The Cancer Center for Healthy Living, located in Peoria, Illinois offers free healthy living classes for cancer survivors including yoga, tai ji, strength training and gentle aerobics. Our founders (who were cancer survivors) believed that exercise would help heal the body, mind and spirit. Since 1996, we have offered these services to those in need free of charge, even inviting their support system to come with! If you would like additional information about our organization, visit our website at http://www.cchlpeoria.org

    We are always hoping for more participants!

  7. and not only as a good way to maintain a good health level, I know this is sound totally stupid or like a fantasy, but think in a future disaster event in that you need to have a good physical condition.

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