Dr. Itzhak Brook may have lost his ability to speak normally, but his personal experience with throat cancer and its aftermath has given him a stronger voice than ever.
Dr. Brook is professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University, Washington, and a specialist in anaerobic bacterial infections and infections of the head and neck. He was diagnosed with hypopharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma in 2005, despite never having smoked. Surgical removal of the tumor and radiation were initially successful, but 2 years later, the cancer recurred and he underwent total laryngopharyngectomy.
In his new book, “My Voice: A Physician’s Personal Experience With Throat Cancer,” Dr. Brook recounts, in unflinching detail, the 3 years beginning with his diagnosis and culminating in his newfound role as a spokesman bridging the gap between medical professionals and patients with head and neck cancers, particularly laryngectomees.
Being a physician did not prevent Dr. Brook from experiencing the same fears and emotions felt by any patient diagnosed with cancer. He relates these throughout the book, including his initial “inner prejudice about patients with cancer” dating back to his medical school days decades earlier when the diagnosis meant a near-certain death sentence.
Nor did possession of a medical degree protect Dr. Brook from medical errors. It just allowed him to spot more of them. Indeed, a startling proportion of the book chronicles the numerous errors — of both omission and commission — that he observed during each of his hospital stays. The majority of these — some with serious consequences — would not likely have been detected by patients without medical backgrounds.
Following his radical surgery, Dr. Brook struggled to communicate with busy, overworked physicians and nurses. Describing morning rounds, he writes, “When the surgical team arrived and departed within 2 or 3 minutes without giving me time for follow-up questions, I felt ignored and frustrated … I was also afraid that if I antagonized them, I would receive even less attention.”
But his account isn’t all negative. Throughout the book, Dr. Brook praises the many “compassionate” medical professionals involved in his care — including even some who made mistakes — and documents his personal triumphs and insights in adapting to his new set of realities. He now shares his expertise with fellow laryngectomy patients at the online support community www.webwhispers.org.
Before his ordeal began, Dr. Brook had been a worldwide lecturer in infectious disease. Now that he uses a voice prosthesis and speaks in a “rusty whisper,” he’s found a new mission. “My wish is to use this obstacle in my life in a positive way. By lecturing and writing about my experiences and sharing them with other laryngectomees and health care providers I hope that others will learn and benefit from my experience.”
-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)