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The Good Doctor

By December 2006Comments

texasmonthly.com: How did you hear about Sam Hassenbusch?

Jan Reid: An author and past editor in New York had written a book in which he developed a continuing interest in the tradition of “self-treating physicians” who approached their illnesses as research opportunities. He had heard of Sam’s predicament and response, and he suggested that a profile of him could offer a fascinating inroad into the general subject.

texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend with Sam?

JR: Last spring I first spent a very full day with him at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, observing his team’s involvement in a surgical pain-management procedure; listening to patient consultations (with their permission, of course); meeting his wife, Rhonda, and his staff; sitting in a meeting with fellow motorcycling enthusiasts at the hospital; and interviewing him as we walked and rode elevators. I was worn out by the time I caught a cab to the airport and he headed home on his motorcycle, still going strong. As it happened, a friend who was stricken with cancer was arriving for her first consultation at the hospital as he walked me out to the taxi stand. He at once went out of his way to make her feel welcome and at ease, and he followed up with her even though she wasn’t one of his patients, which certainly added to my initial impression of the man. Later I conducted a lengthy phone interview with Sam, and then we struck up a frequent e-mail correspondence. I’ve seen him two more times in Houston in recent weeks.

texasmonthly.com: Medical stories can be difficult to report because of confidentiality laws. Did you have to jump through many hoops or cut through other medical red tape for this story?

JR: Not as much of that as I would have expected. Sam’s no exhibitionist, and he’s secure enough about his career, intellect, and faith to know he doesn’t need publicity. Also, now more than ever, he’s a very busy man. After his diagnosis with glioblastoma and his recognition of the importance of research that some of his closest colleagues were helping pioneer, he decided it was important to share his story with other patients and their families. M.D. Anderson has an expert public relations staff, and they were very helpful in making the story work. So were his colleagues and assistants and the families of his patients—one of whom was a young Houston pediatrician who had lost her battle with the same kind of brain tumor. Her courage and that of her parents inspired him to play a public role in fighting his illness.

texasmonthly.com: It’s been a little more than a year and a half since Sam’s diagnosis, and in your article he seems to be doing pretty well. What is the likelihood of a sudden lapse in his condition?

JR: The odds say he’s well overdue for more bad news. He talks frankly about his prognosis, but I can’t remember a conversation with him that didn’t ring at some point with his laughter. He’s a true optimist, and he may be the most emotionally balanced person I’ve ever met.

texasmonthly.com: You went on hospital rounds with Sam in May. How has his health changed since then?

JR: This week he seemed exactly like he was that day I met him six months ago.

texasmonthly.com: Does Sam still perform surgeries?

JR: He participates in surgeries and surgical procedures with his teams of colleagues, but I don’t believe at this time he takes the lead—wields the scalpel—in neurosurgeries.

texasmonthly.com: You write about several doctors self-treating their cancer and sometimes misdiagnosing it. How often do such misdiagnoses prove fatal?

JR: I don’t know. My guess is that their experience runs pretty much like other victims of cancer—it depends on what kind of tumor they have, whether and how far it metastasizes, and if they get a correct diagnosis early enough.

texasmonthly.com: Have Sam and his team received any criticism for their work—from the medical community, the media, or anywhere else?

JR: Not that I’m aware of.

texasmonthly.com: Sam, obviously, is totally dedicated to his work. Does he do anything—other than riding his motorcycle—for R & R, especially now that he is sick?

JR: He’s pretty ordinary, for such an extraordinary individual. He loves watching movies, he spends as much time as he can with his wife and children—when they were young there was a constant crowd of kids in their house—and he’s an avid reader and student of the Bible. I’ve heard him speak at length about investigating new Web sites and software that heighten his understanding and appreciation of Scripture. I’m certain he’d say his involvement in his church is a source of great relaxation and pleasure.

texasmonthly.com: In the first paragraph, you establish that Sam is not a complainer. Is it likely he is in significantly more pain than he admits?

JR: He would have to be in a considerable amount of psychological pain, and I’m of the persuasion that having to undergo any kind of chemotherapy or radiation protocol for cancer is a frightful prospect for anyone. But he’s too cheerful and bursting with energy to be in agonizing physical pain. I take him at his word on that.

texasmonthly.com: Did it strike you as odd that Sam—such a highly respected doctor—puts so much credence in prayer’s healing power?

JR: Not odd, though I wouldn’t have expected it. If nothing else, I suppose I expect doctors to be more guarded about their inner lives in all regards. They’re scientists, and we’re conditioned by our culture to believe that by virtue of that training they’re more skeptical, empirical, and detached. To put it another way, I’m a writer, and I probably attach a lot more significance to the written word than most people do. I’m not religious in the way Sam is, but I have read enough Scripture to believe that the apostle Luke crafted the best prose in the New Testament. That man we call Luke was a doctor — who am I to doubt the power and solace such a man ultimately found in his spirituality?

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