I had never spent more than one night in a hospital or been confronted by serious illness, so my recent surgery for stomach cancer and six-day hospital stay were a life-altering experience. Fortunately, it turned out well. I am all too aware that every day, many thousands of people have medical situations more serious than mine, and not all end well.
Mine began innocuously enough. In 2017 I developed acid reflux, something fairly common and usually very treatable. An endoscopy done by Dr. Michael Barth, a gastroenterologist and a good friend, turned up nothing.
As a routine update, we did another endoscopy in March. Going into it, I didn’t give it a second thought. Just another test that guys my age go through. Just checking the box. I was surprised when Barth told me he had found a protrusion in my stomach wall. He thought it was probably benign, but recommended that I see Dr. Arvino Trindade, a specialist at Northwell Health.
Trindade scheduled a biopsy for April 10, at Long Island Jewish hospital. I had to be there at 5:30 a.m. For Irish guys, hospitals are intimidating enough at any time, but especially in the early-morning dark. Melissa Zimmerman, a retired Nassau County police detective who was on my security detail when I was in Congress, offered to drive Rosemary and me to the hospital.
Before I was taken into the operating room, Trindade told me he was pretty sure there was nothing there. The next thing I knew, I was waking up and he was telling me there was a tumor, and the odds were that it was malignant. That should have been shocking news, but he was professional and calm, assuring me it could easily be removed. Nothing to worry about.
A few nights later, I woke up at around 3 a.m., and it hit me that I probably had cancer. Then, four days after the biopsy, Barth and Trindade called to confirm it: The tumor was malignant, and the surgery would be done at LIJ by Dr. Matthew Weiss, a premier surgeon. Weiss called and told me all looked good for complete success. “Enjoy the weekend,” he said. That night, Rosemary and I had dinner at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan with Melissa and her husband, Lance.
The following Tuesday I met Weiss, who told me the surgery would be on April 24. He was confident that it would go well. It turned out that his college roommate was a son of Frank Macciarola, whom I’d gone to St. Francis College with and who later became president of the college. Small world. I took it as a good sign.
I went to pre-op appointments at Northwell, and saw my cardiologist in Manhattan to get clearance for the operation. With a day to go, I started on a liquid diet, Jell-O being the closest thing to solid food.
Once again, Melissa drove Rosemary and me to the hospital. The Northwell admissions people couldn’t have been friendlier. By 6:30 a.m. I was dressed in my hospital outfit, lying on a gurney with an intravenous tube in my arm, answering questions from doctors and nurses, including the ones you’re asked 100 times: name, date of birth, surgery you’re there for. Sometimes I had to spell my name.
Then I was wheeled into the operating room, a science fiction-style enclosure filled with doctors, nurses, bright lights and a table with what seemed to be an endless supply of knives and scissors. An epidural was painlessly inserted in my spine, and an anesthesia mask placed over my face.
The next thing I knew, I was in the recovery room, and Rosemary was saying that Weiss had told her all had gone well. I felt pain across my stomach, but nothing severe.
Soon I was in my own room. There was no steady pain as long as I lay motionless, but any attempt to move, or even reach for something, was very painful. Every day, though, the pain receded. The day after the surgery, I was walking up and down the hall. I slept pretty well at night, despite being awakened every few hours to have my blood pressure taken and blood drawn.
Each morning began with a team of doctors coming through at about 6:30 to ask how I was doing and to take turns admiring the 9-inch-long scar from my chest to my navel. Their words of praise made me feel proud, almost as if I had something to do with it. Weiss came by several times, always upbeat and reassuring — a total pro.
Northwell chief executive Michael Dowling, whom I’m proud to work for as a Northwell consultant, visited me for almost an hour, and we chatted about everything from my surgery to County Limerick’s hurling team in Ireland. Besides Rosemary, who was there for hours each day, visitors included my son, Sean, my daughter, Erin, my sister, Barbara (a nurse), NCPD Commissioner Pat Ryder, former Deputy Commissioner Bill Flanagan, the Zimmermans, and former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fred Cambria. There were phone calls from Mets greats Ed Kranepool and Art Shamsky and get-well wishes from political luminaries including Joe Cairo, Bruce Blakeman, Al D’Amato and Jay Jacobs. The warmest conversation was with my grandson Jack.
The most unexpected call came from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Representatives Anthony D’Esposito, Andrew Garbarino and Nick LaLota, who had a layover in Shannon Airport, in Ireland, on a trip to Jordan and Israel. I almost felt as if I were back in Congress.
Five days after the operation, I walked out of the hospital unassisted.
I can’t say enough about the people at Northwell, especially the nurses and aides who did everything to make me comfortable and keep me relaxed. Northwell was top shelf before, during and after this entire process. (For those who might wonder, I was covered by Medicare and Rosemary’s insurance plan. I gave up congressional insurance 20 years ago. It was too expensive.)
Now I’m home and feel great. No real pain; just soreness. I’m eating well, and walking a few blocks each day. Weiss expected an almost full recovery in three to four weeks. There were some tense moments along the way, but I’m a lucky guy.
Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security.