Dr. Henry Stern had brought home cases before, but not like this one.
He slipped the disk into his computer and cued up the patient’s CT scan.
After 25 years as a Yale-graduated radiologist — the last 16 as chief of nuclear medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Palm Beach — he should have known what to expect solely from the patient’s history.
The patient, age 53, had skipped the recommended colonoscopy at 50. Long-time smoker. Acute pain in the lower back. If it wasn’t for his family’s insistence, the patient — who avoided visiting the doctor at all costs — never would have come in.
There, in black and white swirls, Stern clearly could see a thickening of the lower intestine. Worse, the tumor had spread beyond the bowel, into the fat around the pelvis, over to a lymph node and to the nerves of the spine, which led to the back pain.
“What is it, Henry?” Stern’s wife, Cheryl, asked, looking over his shoulder at the results.
He zoomed in, zoomed out, needed a moment to think of what to say.
“This doesn’t look good,” he said, finally.
Dr. Henry Stern knows cancer when he sees it.
‘I wanted to cure cancer’
Two years ago, Stern diagnosed himself with cancer. The statistics say he has a 50-50 chance of beating the disease.
But in a way, he has been fighting cancer his whole life.
He was in the second grade when his father snuck him past security, into the hospital room where his mother was dying of ovarian cancer. No one told him so, but from the pall over the room, he knew he was brought there to say goodbye.
He wasn’t brave. When his mother leaned over the rail of her hospital bed to hug him, he sobbed so hard he could barely speak. He knew what her dying meant: He and his two older sisters would be left alone to their father.
“My mother was the angel in my life when I was growing up,” he recalled. “My biggest fear was that if anything happened to her, it would just be me and him.”
His father was an alcoholic. His drinking overpowered all else in the home. It drove Stern’s sisters away, overshadowed his mother’s sickest days, and left him unwilling to revisit that era in much detail. He calls them only “character-building experiences.”
When his mother miraculously beat cancer and came home, Stern decided what his goal in life would be: “I wanted to grow up and cure cancer,” he said.
For his birthday that year, his mother bought him a chemistry set. He learned toward science in school. When he was a high school sophomore in Oakhurst, N.J., he saw a poster in the guidance counselor’s office advertising a summer science program at the University of Iowa. His mother somehow scraped together the $900 to send him.
“To this day, I have no idea how my mother did it,” he said.
Stern had to look up Iowa on a map. But it didn’t matter. He left without reservations and excelled there, smitten with biology and bio-chemistry.
When the eight-week camp ended, he dreaded going home. So he asked the dean of admissions to let him enroll, even though he was 16 and had not graduated high school. By coincidence, the school was administering the ACT college-entrance exam the next day. So the dean told Stern if he scored well enough, he would let him in. Without a day to study, Stern scored in the 30s. (A 36 is a perfect score.)
He never went home. After his first year at Iowa, Stern wrote an essay explaining his situation in applying to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he would go on to graduate with a biology degree in three years — with honors. All the while, his mother deposited her entire paycheck from her work as a secretary into his account to help pay for school.
He kept climbing. By the time he graduated from Yale medical with the highest honors, summa cum laude, he had been published twice in medical journals and given an award for his thesis — which focused on chemotherapy and leukemia cells.
When he wasn’t at work, he was home reading medical journals. It would be wrong to say he had no life; medicine was his life.
Until he met Cheryl.
‘The love of my life’
On his first day as a fall intern and surgery resident at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, he bumped into Cheryl, who coordinated the surgeons’ schedule as she studied hospital administration, three times. By the end of the day, he’d asked her out.
“He was young and very motivated,” she said.
By April, they were engaged. By May, married. And just after their first anniversary, their first of two sons, Everett, was born.
“We were young, it was exciting and we were in love,” Cheryl recalled as they sat holding hands in their modest Wellington home recently. “You just kind of go with it.”
“She was the love of my life,” Stern added. “The absolute love of my life.”
Stern’s knowledge and skill made him a perfect candidate to become a heart surgeon, which he’d been considering after a fellowship as an emergency-room surgeon. He was patient, incisive, obsessive over details (a skill visible in the fireplace mantle he has carved in his Wellington home).
But he was also a family man. A surgeon’s schedule meant he left for the hospital before his boys — Everett was 2, Gavin newborn — awoke and returned when they were asleep.
“I wanted to be the father to them that I didn’t have,” he said, as he looked at a picture in his office of himself — a ruddy beard and matching hair — tickling his sons, still dressed in his white coat and teal scrubs.
He turned down a cardio-thoracic surgery fellowship at the Mayo Clinic and instead pursued a radiology fellowship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The field was much closer to his roots as a researcher. It meant he wouldn’t often work directly with patients, but his analysis of scans helped other doctors determine the best treatment.
Plus, it meant more predictable hours, so he could help with the boys. The family moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., so Cheryl could finish her master’s degree in social work, even though she was going back to school at 31. (Stern helped tune her essay.) She’s been practicing for 20 years since.
“If he wasn’t as encouraging, I never would have done it,” she said.
‘He was my best friend’
Stern got to be the father he would have wanted.
On his way home from work, he would buy each boy a treat from a toy store near the hospital. He helped his sons with science fair projects. He bought them each microscopes, good ones that projected the images on the television screen. He would put his own blood on microscope slides so the boys could begin to understand the basics of biology.
He and Gavin went to Radio Shack to buy transistors to make circuit boards. And for one science fair, he ordered cow hearts over the phone that he and Everett dissected together.
“He would get really excited and involved in it,” Gavin recalled. “He was disappointed when my brother didn’t win first place.”
Their golden time was simply to be in their father’s presence, reading. They would spend hours at Barnes and Noble, and Everett said Stern never denied them however many books they wanted to buy.
“Being able to just sit and read with him was an honor,” Everett said. “He was the one who would talk to me, mentor me. He was like my best friend.”
What he didn’t do was drink.
“The kids didn’t grow up in a home with beer in the refrigerator,” Stern said. “I wanted to be the father to them that I didn’t have.”
He tried to teach his sons that people — not things — are what matter.
Of his 31 years in medicine, less than three total have been spent in lucrative private practice. He hated the way money drove care at for-profit practices. At his last one in Rochester, where he lasted the longest (23 months), Stern simply handed in a slip of notebook paper, fed up, with the words “I quit” when he resigned to take the job at the VA hospital.
‘Patients are like family’
Being on the VA’s West Palm Beach campus reminds him of his idealistic days at Yale, when decisions were made based on what was best for the patient, not what was dictated by an insurance company.
“It’s such a good feeling to be able to give back to veterans who gave so much to us,” Stern said.
Here, he often goes into the MRI and CT chambers to hold a patient’s hand if they’re scared or claustrophobic, even though it means a few extra doses of radiation. (He wears a sensor pinned to his lab coat to warn him of overexposure.)
“He does it because he loves it,” said Chuck Jordan, the lead nuclear medicine technologist who has worked with Stern for 15 years. “He’ll do it when he’s in a nursing home, in a wheelchair, reading X-rays.”
At 55, he still has college loans. He shops for clothes at Wal-Mart. He drives a used Pontiac. And their sage-green Wellington home is not in a gated community, but comfortable, ordinary and indistinguishable from the one next door.
There is little more to Stern’s life than family and medicine.
On Saturday mornings when Cheryl sleeps in, Stern is up at 6 a.m. to read the latest books on body MRI and medical journals to keep abreast of his field.
Everett used to get jealous of how much time his father spent at the hospital, attending to others, until he spent a day at the hospital with him.
“I saw the family he had there, how much they respected him,” Everett said. “It wasn’t work for him. His patients were like family.”
His sons learned that integrity at their father’s heels. Gavin is a journalist, a fellow at Scripps-Howard in Washington, D.C., who studied two years of medicine before becoming a science writer. And Everett is the whistle-blower who made national news for turning in the bank HSBC for ignoring drug cartels and terrorists organizations that used the bank to move money.
“I was just doing what my father taught me to do: You just help people, and that’s it,” Everett said.
But maybe, this one time, his father should have been a bit more selfish.
‘We want to enjoy our time together’
Cheryl knew something was wrong when Stern came home from work early.
The pain in his back was blinding, and he left the VA three hours early one Wednesday afternoon. Cheryl insisted he see the doctor, especially since they were supposed to leave for Cape Cod on vacation in 10 days. He resisted — “I don’t really like to go to the doctor,” he admitted — until she had Everett call to press him.
He went to the urologist — Stern figured he had a kidney stone — who sent him for a CT. Henry took home a compact disk of the exam, since his specialty was in reading results.
One look at the film told him to expect the worst. But he never said the word “cancer” to Cheryl. He told her the radiologist who conducted the test wrote it might be diverticulitis (which he did), though Stern knew from his symptoms it wasn’t.
The next day, he went in for a colonoscopy and the doctor had no doubt: It was cancer. Stage 3B. It was the last day Stern smoked.
“I was in shock,” Cheryl said.
Stern’s response? He asked the doctor whether he could start treatment after they returned from vacation.
“You cannot go on vacation with this!” she yelled at both of them.
“He completely minimized it,” Everett said. “My mother is the one who called me crying.”
The cancer surgery was a calamity. He went in for the procedure in August of 2011 at Good Samaritan, where the surgeon removed a portion of his intestines, a lymph node and fat cells. But in the process, the surgeon nicked a ureter, a tube that propels urine from the kidneys to the bladder. Fluid leaked into his abdomen for days — Stern diagnosed the complication and told his surgeon to conduct an ultrasound, which Stern himself read — and he eventually had a 20-centimeter fungal abscess that required further surgery.
For a week, Stern blipped in and out of consciousness. He’d wake up to hear Cheryl telling him she loved him and fade out. Fade in to hear his sons’ bickering and yell “Cut the crap!” before wading out again. He spent the next three weeks in the hospital between worlds.
“It was terrifying,” Stern recalled.
A month later, he began chemotherapy — and returned to work. Twice a month for six months, a pump under his lab coat delivered the medicine over 24 hours. It buzzed and clicked mechanically in the silence as he dealt with patients, other doctors, even student doctors from the University of Miami.
“I’m in awe of how much knowledge he has, what he knows,” said Pamela Tambini, a first-year internal medicine resident from UM’s Miller School of Medicine, who completed a radiation rotation under Stern. “His eye will catch so many different things.”
Then came five weeks of radiation, where he sat alone in a radiation-proof room, alone with his thoughts and fears.
“They close that big, metal door, and it’s just you and the machine,” he said. “I tried to fall asleep and think of anything else.”
Stern lost 30 pounds. The Kaplan-Meier scale gave him an 80-percent survival rate — that is, to be alive in five years. But when he used his training to hone in on the depth and damage of his condition, he saw the odds drop to 70. Then 50-50.
“Probably the best thing is not to look at the curve,” he said. “It’s hard knowing you may not be here in three years.”
He never stopped working, his source of distraction and therapy. But several mornings, Cheryl heard him crying alone in the kitchen. Sometimes she hugged him and they cried together. Sometimes, she gave him the space to think.
Stern had been raised in the Jewish faith, and though he does not practice, he observes the High Holy Days. He sought strength in an enduring faith in God, whatever His form. In his office, by the front door, he keeps an image of a guardian angel next to the poem “Footprints.”
On days when his fear and anxiety crippled him, he recited the poem “Crossings” to himself:
I came to the swift, raging river/And the roar held the echo of fear
“Oh Lord, give me wings to fly over/If You are, as You promised, quite near.”
But He said, “Trust the grace I am giving, all-pervasive, sufficient for you. Take my hand, we will face this together/But My plan is not over, but through.”
Cheryl joined a writers group to unravel her feelings. She later started a blog to update their family.
“I cried for two years,” she said.
If their time together is fleeting, they are not rushing to cram in bits of new experiences. They still go to Original House of Pancakes on Sunday mornings. Stern still wakes up early to read medical journals. And they still take a couple of romantic trips a year. In July, they returned to Maine, where they celebrated their honeymoon 30 years ago this year.
“We don’t have to see the Great Wall of China,” Cheryl said.
“We just want to enjoy our time together,” he said.
So, Dr. Henry Stern is still at work, teaching residents in the mornings, reading scans in the afternoons, and living his life in the service of others — for as long as he’s allowed to do it.
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Carlos Frías is a features writer and occasional columnist for The Palm Beach Post. He’s a father, author and recovering sportswriter who remains a voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He joined the Post in 2004 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered the Atlanta Braves. His memoir, “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba,” (Simon and Schuster, 2009) was based on the award-winning five-day Post series, “Mi Familia,” for which he was named the Cox Writer of the Year in 2006.
Bill Ingram was born in Puerto Rico. He joined the visual journalism staff in 1994 and has covered events from weather-related storms to NFL Super Bowls, NBA finals, college bowl as well as local and international news story. Bill’s work was part of the Palm Beach Post team photo portfolio that was runner-up for the Pulitzer prize in 2005. He joined the Post after working for the European Pressphoto Agency in Frankfurt, Germany, and before that for Agence France-Presse in Washington, D.C.
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