In 1980 Bill Tortolani had a pesky cough. Figuring it was just a cold, he really didn’t want to do anything about it but his lovely wife Ellen pestered him to see a doctor anyway. When he went in for a check-up, the malignant tumor they found in his throat was the size of a potato.
From day one he’s been considered a marvel of modern day medicine and his case has been studied at Harvard Medical. How could a tumor grow so large in such a conspicuous spot and yet go unnoticed?
A few days later at a routine biopsy the doctor on call for the procedure accidentally sliced through his carotid artery. Oopsie daisy.
Ellen was at home with the kids, aged 3, 6 and 9, having no idea that a thoracic surgeon had been rushed into the operating room Grey’s Anatomy style to save her husband’s life. He woke up alone and nauseous from all the blood he swallowed while bleeding out, thinking that was it. He was a goner. But instead he survived, had thirty or so radiation treatments and prospered.
Eighteen years later the tumor grew back. So Pops Tortolani has three scars: One straight line across the side of his neck from the botched biopsy/carotid artery slicing. One half moon shape above that from the initial tumor removal. And one straight line down the middle of his chin where they split his mandible (jaw) in half to go in the second time.
Let’s just think about that for a second… he has a metal plate holding his chin together.
One MRI is enough for an entire lifetime. Bill has them every six months. Between those, radiation treatments and plain old office visits, he & Ellen estimate they’ve made the drive from Coventry, RI to Mass General Hospital in Boston, MA well over 150 times.
Yet when he puts a beer in your hand and sits you down at his table for homemade lasagna, salad, delicious bread and apple pie, it’s not because he wants to lament the unexpected medical course his life has taken. It’s because he wants to tell you about his beautiful wife and his incredible daughters and grandkids. He wants you to understand how lucky he is.
One of those daughters, Sue, has been a major player in my life for sixteen years now. She was the three year old at home with mom when dad was first in the hospital. And interestingly enough… she’s had a lifelong allergy to potatoes.
Sue’s dad doesn’t want to mention that he had an MRI last week that showed a new growth of lesions. He doesn’t want anyone worrying about what yesterday’s biopsy results are going to show in the coming days. But I already know all about them anyway. I’ve known about his MRI’s for years because every six months there’s a change in Sue.
If given the option, I don’t think Bill would alter the course of his life except for one thing: he would figure out a way to erase the fear and stress his wife and girls go through because of his health concerns. That’s what kills him. Not what happens to him, but what happens to them.
I rode 88 miles to their home in Rhode Island because these are the people who benefit from services such as the ones provided by Ann’s Place. These are people I love. These are people who matter. These are people who represent an unfortunately large population of families who deal with persistent cancers and non-stop invasive testing and procedures for years and years on end.
The roller coaster can be exhausting but in between the dips and loops there’s a lot of life to be lived. Bill Tortolani is living proof of the power of positive thinking and continued focus on love and gratitude. Do me a solid and send a few happy thoughts his way.
We love you Pops T. Thanks again for dinner.