Cue up the Michael Buble. Crank up the Sheryl Crow, Queen and Colbie Caillat. Turn up the lights, ratchet up the pressure, and prepare to witness a performance of epic proportions. This isn’t center stage at the Orpheum or center court at the Qwest Center. The audience is limited to a very fortunate few. This is the operating room at The Nebraska Medical Center. And the super-rock-star-athlete – the Michael Jordan/Justin Bieber amalgam in the middle of it all- is Dr. Jason Foster.
As a member of the hospital’s marketing and media relations team, I have the opportunity to be in the operating room from time-to-time to capture a wide range of life-saving and revolutionary procedures. We use these photos and videos for student, patient and public education – all with patient permission, of course. I always look forward to these days – I know I’m going to see something very few people will ever have the opportunity to see. But while I knew the procedure I was about to witness was unique, I had no idea what kind of awe-inspiring performance I was going to see from the surgeon.
Foster is one of a handful of surgical oncologists in the country who performs a procedure called Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy, also known as hot chemo. It begins with the traditional removal of tumors from a patient’s abdominal cavity, and concludes with bathing the patient’s internal organs in a heated solution of chemotherapy to kill the microscopic cancer cells, which are likely still present.
It’s a procedure that rolls several treatments into one – the surgery and chemotherapy happens all at once, instead of multiple surgeries and multiple rounds of chemo each time the cancer recurs. But not only is it unique, it is also time consuming. Scrubbed in, and with the modern day equivalent of a mix tape playing over the operating room’s speaker system, Foster makes the first incision at 8:30 a.m.
The events that follow astonish many of the other medical professionals in the room. But Foster is unfazed. Foster is unflappable. The hours tick by. Foster’s focus on the task at hand is as sharp as when he started. By the middle of the afternoon, Foster is still on his feet. There have been no breaks. There have been no signs of stretching tired back or leg muscles. By early evening, the surgical mix tape plays on, and Foster still hasn’t missed a beat. He calls out for surgical instruments in the same calm but assertive voice. He spends hours on one side of the patient removing cancerous organs and tissue, then slowly strides to the other side for a few hours more. Where most others would crumble, Foster is comfortable. Where some would panic, Foster perseveres.
It is now 10 p.m. and the meticulous removal of the cancer continues. Still no breaks – still no stretches. Other members of the surgical team have rotated in as others have gone home. But Foster remains. At 1:30 a.m. the following morning – 17 hours after he started – Dr. Jason Foster calls it a night.
He begins again roughly ten hours later. With the visible cancer removed, Foster pumps the heated chemotherapy into the patient’s abdominal cavity. For two more hours, the doctors assisting Foster shake the patient’s stomach back and forth – seeking out any rogue cells that could cause the cancer to recur. The entire procedure lasts nearly 24 hours. But Foster estimates it will give the patient another four or five years of life before a possible recurrence. In many cases, it will give them a quality of life they never could’ve had with traditional treatment. Let’s see Michael Jordan or Justin Bieber pull that off.