The Finish Line

Dr. Tony Seidenberg has learned the hardest medical lesson of all—how to deal with his own terminal illness.

Dr. Anthony Seidenberg had seen countless blood reports, but the one he looked at on a Friday in September two and half years ago made him weep. It was his own report, and the five lines of numbers on it didn’t fall into the neat row that characterizes the blood count of a healthy person. Instead, the line showing white blood cell count jutted out, indicating that he had more than 100,000 white cells per cubic millimeter rather than the normal number of 5000 to 10,000. Immediately, one word registered in Seidenberg’s mind: leukemia.

Still wearing his jogging shorts, Seidenberg had just arrived for work at ten o’clock, after his usual morning run. An anesthesiologist at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, he was preparing for another busy day of putting surgery patients to sleep. Now he realized that he was sicker than most people he would be working with.

The 34-year-old doctor, a six-mile-a-day runner, hadn’t been feeling well; he had been getting too tired after normally nontaxing runs. This was the first summer Tony had run in Austin’s hot weather, so he had chalked his fatigue up to the Texas heat. But when the muggy summer days turned into cool fall ones and he still felt run-down, he had a nurse draw some blood for lab tests. The preliminary results showed an elevation of the lactose dehydrogenase (LDH) enzyme, which indicates active bone marrow with a rapid turnover of cells—not a good sign but not necessarily cause for alarm. Seidenberg figured that at worst he had hepatitis, an occupational hazard. He was aware, however, that an elevated LDH level coincides with a high white cell count, making it a possible sign of more serious illnesses such as cancer or marrow diseases. As soon as he could, Seidenberg had another blood sample drawn and sent to the lab.

On this Friday morning, while the nurses and operating-room staff were preparing the adjacent suite for surgery, pathologist Jim Spidle—a man Seidenberg barely knew—gently handed him the shattering results of that second test. Suddenly the lights of the operating-room office were too stark for Seidenberg, the usually comfortable air conditioning made him shiver, and sobs were welling up inside him.

“What kind of leukemia?”

“CML,” Spidle said, placing his hand on the young doctor’s shoulder. Seidenberg needed no explication. Chronic myelogenous leukemia is a blood disease for which there is presently no cure; its victims have a median life expectancy of three years, which makes it a slow killer for a leukemia.

Seidenberg and Spidle are both specialists in fields of medicine that don’t involve extensive patient contact. Spidle, who has less face-to-face interaction with patients than Seidenberg, spends most of his time peering through microscopes, analyzing cells, and studying tissues and lab reports. He then passes those reports on to his fellow physicians, and they are the ones who must tell their patients what the numbers and abbreviations mean. Now Spidle was dealing with a doctor who was being transformed into a patient before his eyes. It was an uncomfortable, sad situation, and afterward neither of them remembered the details of those minutes very well, except to recall that Seidenberg cried.

Spidle offered to call Seidenberg’s doctor, but Tony chose to make the call himself while Spidle arranged for one of the other anesthesiologists to cover for their partner. Then Tony called his wife, Pat, knowing only too well the particular burden that would fall on her. Pat has multiple sclerosis, an incurable neurological disease that can, without notice, impair the brain and cripple the victim. With Tony now diagnosed as terminally ill, it was possible that their two children, Michael, 10, and Philip, 9, would lose both parents. For eight years—since Pat was 26—the MS hasn’t affected her much. She has had only three spells of numbness, double vision, and walking-into-the-walls clumsiness, but the possibility that those spells will worsen is always there. After talking to Tony, Pat immediately left their home in Austin’s affluent Northwest Hills to meet him at the doctor’s office. There the cancer specialist inserted a hollow needle into Seidenberg’s hipbone and suctioned out marrow from it to confirm the diagnosis. When the couple left the office two hours later, Tony had already taken the first pills for his chemotherapy.

The Seidenbergs knew that despite their shock, they needed to make a quick decision. School was over for the day, and the boys would probably be at home when they got there. The parents knew their children would realize something was wrong. “When they came home, they looked kind of sad,” Michael says. Tony and Pat gathered the family together and told the children that their dad had leukemia. Philip asked if his dad’s life was going to “zip right by” like a leukemia patient the boys had recently seen on a TV show. They told their sons that there are different kinds of leukemia and that their father had a slow-acting form. “I remember we were crying in the kitchen. It was just so sad, I can’t remember the details,” Philip says. But Michael recalls everything about that evening. “I remember thinking, ‘Why us? Dad’s a doctor, he has saved lives.’ It just didn’t seem right or fair.”

If the children had any fears that when they awoke the next few mornings their father would be visibly sicker, they were quickly dispelled. Seidenberg continued to be the same ruddy-faced, trim, athletic man. And that healthy appearance was one of the main problems. He never really felt sick, and when he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw reflected there the epitome of good health. He found himself thinking, and his family saying, that if he looked so healthy, maybe this wasn’t happening after all.

Even though Seidenberg is a physician, it was hard for him to believe that he could seem healthy and still have a process going on inside his body that would be fatal. But his medical logic wouldn’t allow him to cling

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