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The Unsurvivable

The Unsurvivable

I attended Kalamazoo College, graduating in June 1978. I decided that Kalamazoo College home of the Fighting Hornets, was the best fit for me because I was a dedicated football player and their coach offered me an academic scholarship. The Division One and Two schools frowned on athletes taking pre-med curriculums, refusing to give athletic scholarships to players if they chose to undertake any arduous academic adventures. Each coach would say, "Football players don't take pre-med. What're you thinking? You're coming here to play football. You can be a doctor after football." Even my coach at Kalamazoo College said, "I've never had a player who was a pre-med major get through pre-med successfully. But if you want go for it. I suggest Political Science."

Being fair to the coach wisdom, playing football was a commitment: it was time consuming: working out, watching film, eating every meal, practicing year round and staying academically eligible. It took a lot of energy. We did not have personal computers, online classes, or any the other modern adjuncts used in academics today. Pre-med was not hard, just tedious. At least that is how I thought about it. There was no time for fooling around.

I had an unsatisfying experience rooming with a tennis player during my freshman year. He was tall, thin and gangly. He was also a class A slob. Clothes, books, food wrappers, dirty laundry and toiletries scattered everywhere. I was a bit of a neat freak, so our life habits clashed all the time. One day, I was so frustrated with his filth that I drew a line down the center of our dorm room and announced, "If any of your shit gets on my side of our room, I'm gonna throw it out." He laughed. Then he threw his jeans over the line. I grabbed them and took them to the dumpster, threw those raggedy denim trousers in with the rest of the trash. He was shocked. He was no match for me physically, so he just watched. When he climbed into the dumpster, I gave him a little push. He fell in and started whining like a baby. He needed a long shower after retrieving those pants.

The following year, I opted for a single. There were very few single rooms in the dormitories, but I secured one. It was in a two room suite with a shared bathroom with another two room suite. I had a roommate but he had his own space separate from mine. His name was Jonathan, but everyone called him Jothy.

Jothy walked with a limp. He had his left leg amputated just below his hip, and wore a prosthetic leg to get around. He usually used a cane to help balance. He was a great swimmer in high school, as well as a championship snow skier. He told me the story about losing his leg one night.


As a kid, I always had left knee pain. Both my parents were doctors. My mom was a pathologist. My dad was a general surgeon. Every time I complained about my left knee hurting, they would fire off, "It's just growing pains." I was an asshole to everyone I knew. We were rich. Everyone was beneath me. I was a great swimmer. I was a great skier. I had everything I wanted. Girls, sex and beer.

When I was a junior, I went to get out of bed one morning and collapsed. I couldn't walk. I was in severe pain. I called out to my dad. He walked in, picked me up. He and my mom took me to the emergency department at Henry Ford Hospital where he worked. He was a Professor there. So was my mom. All I remember was that they did an x-ray and admitted me. The next morning when I woke up, my leg was gone. I had cancer of the bone called sarcoma. My dad and mom sat in the room and cried. They blamed themselves for not listening to me in my younger years. The cancer was advanced. But they found no evidence of it anywhere but my leg. I was no longer the coolest kid around. I was a cripple.

Later they told me that if they would have found it earlier, I still would've had my leg cut off, but my stump would've been longer, so the prosthetic would've been better.

At that point, he took off his leg and showed me his stump. I had never seen a leg stump before. It was fleshy and scared. He looked odd with one leg almost non-existent and the other one normal. I said, "I'll race you for a hundred dollars!" He laughed. He was on the college swim team and still skied with outriggers. His stump did not stop him. He hustled fellow students in the activity center by beating them in pool.

As the years went by, his doctors found that he had metastatic cancer in his lungs. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation while enrolled in school. I remember tending to him after doses of chemo for a couple of days as he vomited almost non-stop. It seemed like his therapy lasted for weeks. His treatment was during the Winter months, so we had to contend with the gloominess of the weather. When Spring arrived bringing beautiful green colors, pretty flowers and warm air, he was finished with his treatments and thanked God he made it through. I was relieved my best friend had survived, perhaps to fight another day. He went West to ski on the Ski Patrol for three months. I think that experience was on his bucket list.

When he returned to school, he and I had dinner one evening. He thanked me for helping him through such a difficult time in his life. I was honored to have had the opportunity to help him. Then he said something profound. Something I remember that rings in my head every single day after.

When I had it all. I was an asshole to everyone. I was a bully. When I woke up without my leg, I couldn't be an asshole anymore. Everyone at school hated me before I got my leg chopped off. I was an asshole. Big time. I suffered through the humiliation of jokes. People made fun of my karma. I lost my self. Just wanted to die over and over. When I got to college, my past was done. I tried to be better. But somehow, I just couldn't shed being an asshole to people. Maybe it was my nature. I'd say arrogant. I was arrogant. But that chemo kicked my ass. Every dose brought me closer and closer to dying. I could hardly crawl. You were there for me. You never complained when you cleaned up my vomit. You just did what no one else would do. And I realized I couldn't be an asshole anymore. Strange how almost dying changes things. Being near death had multiple impacts. Some horrible, some amazing. And it changed me. I'm not an asshole anymore. I'm a different Jothy. And you are my faithful friend.

As we ate and talked that night, I realized his confession had to be heard by someone. But I could not grasp the depth of which he spoke. I was a healthy, vibrant young man living the dream. I thought I was just trying to help a sick guy by being a friend.

At the end of the quarter, after finals, he left school and our schedules never synchronized again. He graduated, went on to become a Bill Gates kind-of-guy, pioneering computer science and creating software in North Carolina somewhere. Last I heard, we was married and healthy. His illness brought us together and his wellness split us apart. It seems as if that theme continues like the ocean tides rolling in and out.

Sometimes illnesses can have a powerful healing affect on a person's Soul, especially if they survive the unsurvivable.

Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 10:01 AM
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