Why I love my surgeon

I have met a lot of doctors in the last two months, and I have met three beautiful, accomplished surgeons at three world-class cancer centers: NYU, Sloan Kettering and UCSF. I liked them all, but I LOVE my surgeon at UCSF, Shelley (Eun-Sil) Hwang.

It’s my policy to not use full names in this blog, other than my own. But I am making an exception in Dr. Hwang’s case. She’s got a website of her own; she’s pretty public about breast cancer. I’m pretty sure she won’t mind. Here’s why Dr. Hwang rocks:

• Not even 48 hours after a friend of a friend sent her an email asking her to take me on as a patient, explaining that I was in New York, moving to San Francisco in two weeks, Dr. Hwang calls me. She listens to my whole story, rather short at that time, she explains things. She tells me a little bit about herself, turns out her daughter went to preschool at my daughter’s new school. We talk about a friend of mine who’s written a book she admires. She asks if I am Chinese (since I spent time in China, and majored in Asian Languages and History). I say no, European mongrel with Germanic, Anglo-Saxon overtones. She says that’s kind of what she figured, given my last name is not very Chinese. We laugh.

She makes me feel hopeful and strong. Officially, I am not even her patient at this point. She is a surgeon! She is supposed to be brusque and brilliant, maybe not super good at people skills but great with a scalpel. She is supposed to be too busy for this kind of thing!

• Dr. Hwang emails within the next week, saying that she’s been in touch with my doctor at NYU, and with the doctor at Sloan Kettering who gave me a second opinion (coincindentally the doctor who trained her).

• Just before we move, she sends me another email, saying she hopes that I’m coping OK during such a period of change.

• She calls two days after we get to California, says she wants to move up my consultation, so that we can do surgery as soon as possible. “We’re going to take care of this,” she says. “I’m so glad you waited to have the surgery here, but the waiting must have been hard. You can take a break from being strong for a while.”

• When we meet her, three days after arriving in San Francisco, the first thing she does is give me a hug. She is warm, and smart and thorough. I feel like I’ve known her a lot longer than two minutes.

• On the day of surgery, I do not see her while I am conscious. I almost fainted and threw off the schedule, and I bet she has a few fires to put out as a result. she comes into the OR after I’ve gone off to happy land.

• I get out of the recovery ward pretty quickly. With the motivation of my sister-in-law’s enchiladas, I make it a point to walk and pee as quickly as I can. We’re just pulling into the garage at our temporary apartment building when my iPhone rings. “Hi, it’s Dr. Hwang. I wanted to see you before you left but you got out of there fast!”

She tells me the surgery went well, they took out a piece about 5 centimeters by two centimeters. “I was afraid that if we had to go in again, you’d want to just take the whole thing off. I don’t think that necessary at this point.” How does she know me so well, so quickly? I tease her about her incredibly handsome surgery fellow. She says that I sound really good for someone who’s just had surgery. Again, she makes me feel strong and hopeful.

• Dr. Hwang has a reputation for really caring about her patients, for going to bat for them, for being so, so good at what she does.

• She seems detail-oriented, but not so rigid that she liked living in control-crazy Singapore (where there’s a fine for not pulling the toilet chain, and for throwing gum on the street). After she finished her training, she went to Singapore for a year, but came back to California. Woman after my own heart.

• All this, plus she puts together a pretty good video:

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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