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Planet Janet: A doctor's courage

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Janet Combs

Janet Combs

I recently asked my mother, “Didn’t Great-Grandma Kit have a goiter the size of a cantaloupe?”

Before I go on, can we agree this is one impressive topic sentence?

My mother laughed, wondering how in the world I could have known and remembered that.

I told her that a nauseating, formaldehyde-type scent I inhaled one day while driving behind a garbage truck brought the whole scene back to me. Suddenly, I was standing on the back porch of my grandmother’s house on Long Island, where Grandma was giving her mother, my great-grandma Kit, a “Toni Home Permanent.”

I must have been three or four years old. I only remember Great-Grandma Kit holding her arms out to pull me onto her lap while I shied away, repeating in my head: “Don’t look at her neck! Don’t look at her neck! Don’t look at her neck!”

Great-Grandma Kit had this enormous lump on her neck; I guess back in 1962 people just ignored such protuberances and dealt matter-of-factly with their shocking, bulbous growths.

I did not go near Great-Grandma Kit—I was apparently an insensitive child, or perhaps an overly sensitive child, or both. We can only conclude that I had a fear of goiters. That is, until I got a bunch of my own. Some might say this is “karma;” my fear of circus-sideshow oddities became my reality.

Goiter isn’t really a widely used medical term anymore—you hear more about “thyroid nodules,” and these can be relatively harmless. Alternatively, they can cause difficulty breathing or swallowing, which, last I checked, were important activities for human survival. My festival of nodules didn’t visibly enlarge my neck out in front, or you can bet I would have taken corrective action years ago. If there’s one thing Great-Grandma Kit inadvertently taught me, it was not to walk around with a hideous flesh-colored pumpkin permanently lodged under my chin.

These nodules caused me—and my MUSC surgeon—concern, however, so I scheduled myself a little operation to take care of it, last year.

This is certainly old news, but the fact is, some things I can write about immediately, whereas others need to sort of grow on me, not unlike a goiter. I recently had a follow-up appointment, and I’m happy to report the eviction of my thyroid and its ever-growing nodule family has not adversely affected my health. Happily, I will be around to document many future bodily ailments in this column!

But the real reason for my relating this particular story is to talk about courage. Not mine, but my surgeon’s.

On the morning that my surgery was scheduled, about five months out from my consult (because my surgeon is awesome and therefore awesomely busy), my husband and I were greeting the dawn in our car on the way to Charleston. My overnight bag was packed, my whole neck scrubbed with this pre-surgical wash that fortunately did not smell like a Toni Home Permanent; we were just a few minutes from the hospital when Dr. Alp-Oreinrac, whose name has been spelled backward for privacy, called on my cell phone. She explained that she had been up all night with a complex surgery. If it was okay with me, she asked, could she reschedule my procedure for a morning when she felt more rested?

“I just don’t want to operate on you when I’m not at my best,” she said.

“I completely agree!” I said. We turned the car around. Later that evening, I wrote her an email, saying that so many would have tried to be superhuman and soldier through at a risk to their reputations as well as their patient’s health. Her decision to be human was honest, admirable, and loaded with integrity.

Today, there is an almost-imperceptible scar on my neck, for which I am entirely grateful. It’s a reminder to me of the thin line between doing what is expected of us, and doing what is right.

Janet Combs is a freelance writer living in Georgetown County. Her column is published regularly in the Georgetown Times. Contact her at

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