Surgeon Feels Patients' Pains

Dr. David Jacobsen
These days, Dr. David Jacobsen is doing what he knows and loves best: wielding a deft scalpel, seeing patients and teaching young doctors at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.

But just six years ago, at the peak of his career, this surgeon became the patient. Jacobsen was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, one of the deadliest. On hearing the news, he and his wife Gaby held each other and sobbed.

"I knew enough of the statistics to know that 80 percent of the people who had what I had were going to be dead in five years," he says.

A lifelong athlete, he went from swimming, biking and running to chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

"This was a triathlon, I was a surgeon," he says. "I was just going to sail through this."

Of course, he didn't.

Barely surviving chemotherapy, he then endured radiation and a brutal surgery. But eight days after the operation, Jacobsen hobbled into the hospital auditorium, frail and bald, to accept an award as teacher of the year.

"It was overwhelming, a huge moment," he says.

Never one to miss a teaching opportunity, throughout his ordeal Jacobsen had been literally crawling to his computer to send residents what he called "bed's-eye view" lessons on what is like to be a patient.

The experience, he says, changed him profoundly.

The fears and indignities suffered by patients everywhere, he says, are rarely foremost on a doctor's mind.

"I know how that tube feels in your nose, I know how chemotherapy feels and I know how the incision hurts," he says. "It made me so much more aware of what patients go through.

"We can do so much more by being aware of what illness really wrings out of patients."

"It's truly remarkable to watch him interact with people," says Dr. Kurt Rhynhart, a medical resident.

Now Jacobsen takes time to teach not only the intricacies of a difficult surgery, but also how miserable it is to have a tube in your nose.

"He is the first one to pull this tube off anybody because he had this tube for a number of weeks," says Rhynhart.

When Katherine Avramov was diagnosed with breast cancer, she sought him out for both his surgical and emotional expertise.

"It was comforting," she says. "It was comforting that I knew that he had been in the same place."

Today, Jacobsen is in a good place. His cancer is gone. He has a 2-year-old son, another baby on the way and he is back in the operating room.

But not a day goes by that he doesn't remember.

"I lost a rib, I have crushed nerves, I have all kinds of pains in my back and everything else," he says. "I am reminded every single day of the operation, and it reminds me that I am alive."

Now, he in turn is a reminder to his patients that cancer, though devastating, can also teach strength, humility and compassion.