The man who sliced me open and made me smile

I just found out about the recent death of the guy who sliced open my gut to save my life when I was a kid: Alex Haller, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins.

Considering the stakes of the occasion when we met, I thought a brief look back would be appropriate.

When I was 4, I started getting terrible stomach aches. Every day, they hurt worse.

Then my stomach started ballooning, until I was like a male pre-schooler who was 9 months pregnant.

Turns out, I had Hirschsprung’s disease, a rare disorder in which nerves are missing from part of the bowel, meaning it cannot make the proper motions to move food through, causing the food to get stranded, marooned by biology. To live, I needed the bad part of the colon taken out and the good parts sewn together.

I don’t remember being told all these scary details at the time. I only remember being told I’d need to get operated on to fix it. I’d have to spend time in the hospital. That was scary enough. To make matters worse, I’d have to spend weeks eating lots of broth and jello instead of hamburgers and hot dogs.

The main guy at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in charge of making me better, I knew, was Dr. Haller. His head was perfectly bald. It was a clean baldness, a surgeon’s baldness. I didn’t know to ask about his medical training or how many times he’d done the surgery before. All I knew was that I liked him, and that’s all that mattered to me.

There is always a chance of a catastrophic event during any surgery, and I was told later that the chance of dying was quite a bit higher for this kind of surgery. But the memory of the fear of those surgeries — one at age 4, one at age 5— has burned away like a morning dew over the years. In spite of myself, I think about and talk about them now almost as though it was something I accomplished. Implied in the very mention of it to anyone is that I was tough, that I’d stared down possible death and beaten it back. Which, of course, is ridiculous. My only participation was that I got sick.

The accomplishment of it all — other than that of my family and my mom, who spent night after night on a cot next to my hospital bed — was Dr. Haller’s. I think I knew I’d be cut open by him — he had to get to my guts somehow. In an intuitive sense, the reaction to seeing such a person entering your room should be to freeze with dread. But I remember that every time I saw him, I relaxed. I can still see his sparkling eyes and smiling face and bald head looming over me.

The enduring aspect of my surgery — instead of a nightmare, which by all accounts it should have been — has been more along the lines of a neutral, almost pleasant, dream. That, I realize now, was largely because, when Dr. Haller looked down at me, supine, with my bloated belly, he did so as good doctors do: with affection.

Writing about medicine every day now, I see more than ever that medicine is sometimes more science than art, and sometimes more art than science. But the best doctors are those who understand that practicing medicine is primarily a humanitarian act. It is about reducing suffering, whether with knowledge of how to prescribe pills, how to wield a scalpel, or how to look at and talk to a scared kid in his hospital bed. Dr. Haller got it.

So, Dr. Haller, thanks for fixing my plumbing.

Thanks, even, for the memories.




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