I’ve written so many stories about the experiences my son had after his surgery to remove a brain tumor three years ago. Most of them are stories of healing and recovery – the stories about Disney World, and Camp Simcha, and the incredible people who helped us through the weeks and months and years after that day. But I have never written about the person at the center of his story, the man who literally saved our son. I have never written about Dr. Sanjiv Bhatia.
It’s cliché to call the man who saves your child “an angel.” We handed our son over to this man – a stranger – and trusted everything he said, followed his orders, and prayed that he knew what he was doing. We were told that neurosurgeons are notorious for their inflated egos. They are at the top of the medical food-chain, and people warned us not to expect much from our surgeon. “Expertise is more important than bedside manner,” my friend told me. Dr. Bhatia had both. On that first day that we met him, he sat with my son and reviewed the MRI images with him. He took my son in his lap, explaining to him the parts of the brain, how they work, and in his words, how beautiful it was, a huge tumor notwithstanding.
Every step of the way, Dr. Bhatia was with us, calming, assuring, supportive. On the day of the surgery, as he went over what to expect, my son looked at him, lifted his arm and said, “Dr. Bhatia, while you’re in there, can you take this splinter out of my arm? I’ve had it for a while.” Without missing a beat, Dr. Bhatia took his marker and drew a circle around the splinter. We all kind of laughed it off and then left to wait through the grueling surgery that would take all day.
Hours later when Dr. Bhatia came out to give us an update on the surgery, he asked us if we had any questions. My husband, jokingly, asked him if he had taken out the splinter. Smiling, Dr. Bhatia said, “That was the first thing I did.” Sure enough, when we were able to finally see our son, he had a huge bandage around his head, and a small one around his wrist.
It was a simple gesture that meant so much to my son and that most surgeons might have forgotten about and dismissed. But Dr. Bhatia seemed to always work from a position of humility and compassion, not ego and bravado. When the surgery was complete, my husband told Dr. Bhatia that thousands of people had been praying during the day throughout the procedure. Dr. Bhatia’s simple response reflected his fine and unassuming personality: “I know,” he said, “I felt it in my hands.”
Dr. Bhatia was my son’s friend through everything. With every MRI and every in-patient test, Dr. Bhatia was there, ready to make my son laugh, give him advice, and help us move away from those first fearful days and months. “Don’t do drugs,” he warned my son at our last visit. “I spent all this time fixing your brain and then you’re going to screw up my work?” And he always reminded us that he would get my son into college. “I’ve seen your brain. You can do anything,” he told my son.
To call Dr. Bhatia an angel might be cliché, but I can’t think of another term that sums up the beauty of this man’s soul. I think of his delicate hands, his gentle voice, his laugh, and I think of the power that he held in that office, in that operating room, and in that hospital, and how we didn’t even realize it because he never wielded it. All we knew was that he was saving our son, that he was fixing us. His medical recommendations for my son were given together with prescriptions for wine and a night out for me and my husband. He validated our concerns, assuaged our fears, and held our hands.
I never took a picture of my son with his favorite surgeon. I always wanted to wait until we were seeing him for the last time, not coming back for a follow-up, not still worried about MRIs and symptoms. I didn’t realize that this last visit would be the last time we would have that chance. Dr. Bhatia was a masterful, talented surgeon, a man who understood that removing a little boy’s splinter was just as important as removing the tumor that was in his brain. His death leaves a void in the world, in the hospital, and in my heart. But I know, without a doubt, that the care he has given countless children and families, the benevolence and compassion that he bestowed on all of us, will remain with us, will remind us of how to act, of how to be kind, and how to truly be a hero.
And I know I will miss him.