The old saying, "every cloud has a silver lining," seems to have been written just for Sandra Hearn. What started as a cough and turned into a cancerous tumor on her right lung, eventually ended with a mother and daughter reuniting after a lifetime of separation.
"My life was saved by two men, Hearn said, referring to Dr. David Jablons and Dr. Thierry Jahan, renowned lung cancer experts at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, who treated her in September 2001. "I realize the many wonderful stories and lives changed by your staff are numerous, but I would truly like you to hear mine. I feel unique as there was a real and special reason my life was saved."
After coming home from vacation with a cough and feeling ill, Hearn, who lives in Cobb, Calif., was told by a local doctor that she had the beginning of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of conditions that cause airflow blockage and breathing problems, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is the leading cause of death, illness and disability in the United States. Because tobacco use is the leading cause of the condition, Hearn's doctor told her she should quit smoking. She did and felt all right for the next year, until she began to feel rundown again and had serious trouble breathing.
During a visit to the emergency department, she was told that she had a mass on her right lung. She was transferred to another hospital to see a heart surgeon. After numerous tests, the surgeon told her that the tumor was cancerous. The doctor scheduled her for surgery but warned her that because her lung capacity was so damaged, he might have to just "close her up" in surgery. She was scheduled for surgery in a few days and went home to prepare.
But Hearn's family in Southern California insisted that she wait for a second opinion. Her sister sent her some information about UCSF Medical Center, highlighting Jahan and Jablons. Luckily, she agreed to make an appointment with the Thoracic Oncology Program at UCSF Medical Center before going through with the previously scheduled surgery.
Because of the unbelievable compassion, honesty and concern that Jahan and Jablons showed, Hearn said, "My fear vanished. I now had a plan of action and two doctors who would help me through whatever lay ahead for me, and my family. They never promised me anything but respect for my wishes."
Unfortunately her tumor did not respond well to the chemotherapy she received before surgery. Even still, her doctors persevered, determined to provide her with the best possible care.
On Sept. 25, 2001, she underwent surgery. Although Jablons, was unsure whether he could remove all of Hearn's cancer, he promised to do everything he could. "He is truly a genius," Hearn said. "He performed magic during my surgery, (he told me he had help and I believe he did). I had many people peeking in at me while in the hospital wanting to see the miracle woman."
But Hearn's miracle soon became about more than just her physical recovery. After a successful surgery, she was reunited with the daughter whom she had given up for adoption at birth 37 years before. Although Hearn was a very young girl when she had her daughter, named Michelle by her adoptive family, and was never even allowed to touch her, she never forgot her and always hoped to find her.
"Michelle has been trying to find me for most of her life. I had been registered with many organizations, and needless to say, many more when I thought I had no time left," Hearn said. "She found me through the Salvation Army this past February." Michelle's adoptive mother passed away when she was 23 and her adoptive father, with whom she was very close, passed away of lung cancer on the day Hearn had her surgery at UCSF Medical Center.
For the first time, Hearn has been able to hold her daughter in her arms, and get to know her and her four children, who live in Saranac Lake, N.Y. "The healing happened the day we met; it was as if we had never been separated," Hearn says, who calls it a "dream come true" — a dream she insists would not have been possible without Jahan and Jablons, and the team of outstanding professionals at UCSF Medical Center.
At Hearn's last visit with Jahan on June 4, 2003, she brought him a photograph of her and Michelle. "I told him that that he and Dr. Jablons had saved my life and that there was a reason for it."
Story written in April 2004.