Authors: John Grisham
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Health
Focused Ultrasound Foundation
1230 Cedars Court, Suite 206
Charlottesville VA 22903
© 2015 John Grisham
© 2015 Anatomical Justice,
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Convention.
My knowledge of medicine and medical research is quite limited. When I was a student, I drifted away from science and math, preferring instead subjects I considered less demanding. I eventually made it to law school and became a lawyer. After a brief career suing people (never a doctor, though), I stumbled upon fiction and wrote a couple of books. Others followed, and I happily shuttered the law office. Because the books have done well, I have been lucky enough to dabble in philanthropy. Once you get the reputation of being generous, a lot of opportunities present themselves.
Seven years ago, my friend and neighbor, Neal Kassell, gave a PowerPoint presentation on focused ultrasound therapy. Neal is a prominent neurosurgeon who’s spent his career drilling through skulls and making repairs to brains. During the PowerPoint, Neal, with great enthusiasm, explained that focused ultrasound therapy could one day alleviate the need for conventional brain surgery. Tumors would be destroyed using beams of ultrasound energy, and afterward the patient would walk out of the operating room and go home. Not only would the treatment be non-invasive, painless, quick, and relatively inexpensive, it could also save the patient’s life.
Focused ultrasound therapy is still in its early stages, still experimental, but there is enough research to date to be very optimistic.
The brain is just the starting point. Tumors in the breast, prostate, pancreas, liver, kidneys, and bones could be treated on an out-patient basis. Neal loves to use the example of a man with prostate cancer undergoing focused ultrasound therapy, then driving himself back to the office for a few hours. Later, he goes home to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife. They share a champagne toast to growing old together.
This is not science fiction. Around the world, 50,000 men with prostate cancer have been treated with focused ultrasound. Over 22,000 women with uterine fibroids (benign tumors of the uterus) have been treated, thus avoiding hysterectomies and infertility. Clinical trials for tumors of the brain, breast, pancreas and liver, as well as Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and hypertension are inching forward at over 225 research sites around the world.
Though focused ultrasound technology is in its infancy, there is great enthusiasm for its potential to improve the quality of life and decrease the cost of care. This potential, though, remains to be fully demonstrated through additional laboratory research and clinical trials.
But progress is too slow. There are barriers from regulators, insurance companies, even many in the medical field.
I have found no other cause, issue, non-profit, or charity that can potentially save so many lives. One day in the not-too-distant future, you or someone you love will be diagnosed with a tumor. After the shock, you will think of focused ultrasound.
Let’s hope it’s available.
Meet Paul, a 35-year-old banker with a lovely wife, Karen, and three small children. They enjoy a nice life in the suburbs with lots of friends and the usual activities—backyard cookouts, swim parties, tee-ball, church on Sundays. They are active and enjoy great health. Paul’s parents are in their 60s and also very healthy. Paul gets a complete physical once a year, jogs twenty miles a week, plays golf and tennis at a nearby club, and avoids extra pounds. He has an occasional beer, doesn’t smoke, and takes no medication.
But Paul has a problem. He has a tumor in the right frontal lobe of his brain, about the size of a hen’s egg.
Looking back, the first symptom was a gradual decrease in his ability to concentrate at work. Naturally curious and active, he noticed an uncharacteristic tendency to procrastinate. At times he felt listless and tired. Then the headaches arrived, and with a fury. He blamed them on stress and took lots of ibuprofen. As he drove to work one morning, his vision became so blurred he stopped the car. Karen began to notice mood swings and a loss of patience with the kids. He grew more irritable, both at home and at the office. His boss chastised him for barking at a coworker. He quarreled with Karen over his dour moods and crankiness. She knew something was changing with her husband and urged him to see a doctor. He refused.
On a Wednesday morning, as Paul is in the bathroom shaving, Karen hears a loud thump. She finds him on the floor, shaking in a full-blown grand mal seizure. She calls 911, and as she waits the seizure stops and he gradually awakens. He is confused, disoriented—doesn’t recognize Karen and doesn’t know where he is. The rescue squad arrives. Paul is loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. In the emergency room, he is still drowsy and confused and complains of weakness on his left side. Upon examination, his left hand is very weak and he has difficulty lifting his left arm and leg. An MR scan reveals the tumor.
He is admitted to the hospital and started on anticonvulsant medication to prevent further seizures, as well as steroids to decrease the swelling in his brain around the tumor. Paul and Karen are not shown the MR scan. A neurosurgeon is consulted.
By Thursday morning, the confusion and disorientation are gone, as is the weakness in his left side. He feels much better, briefly, but things will change. When the neurosurgeon arrives early that morning for the initial consultation, he produces the MR scan (opposite). As they stare at it, Paul and Karen are too stunned to speak. The doctor explains that Paul indeed has a tumor in his brain and it appears to be the type known as a glioma. Surgery is needed to remove as much of it as possible and to obtain tissue to determine the type of tumor.
They talk about the operation. The doctor covers the risks. For complications like death and paralysis, the risks are very small. The most likely complication will be a weakness on the left side. The surgery will take about three hours, and if all goes well, Paul can expect to go home in three days.
MR scan of Paul’s tumor
The neurosurgeon explains that gliomas are graded one through four, with one and two being benign. Three and four are malignant. Grade four, the most catastrophic, is called a glioblastoma. The life expectancy for a grade four diagnosis is short. Regardless of treatment—surgery, chemo, radiation—the average length of survival is about one year. Left untreated but managed with pain medication only, the patient can expect to live several months. About 22,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with glioblastomas; 15,000 die within 12 months. The lucky ones, about one in ten, live for five years.
Based on the MR scan, the neurosurgeon thinks the odds are about 50–50 that the tumor is benign.
He recommends surgery at the earliest convenient time and it is scheduled for the following Monday. After the doctor leaves, Paul and Karen attempt to come to grips with what’s happening. Should they get another opinion? It seems senseless when staring at the MR scan. There is no doubt about the tumor. They like their neurosurgeon and a quick search online proves he’s one of the best. They are in the finest hospital in the city. Surgery is needed sooner rather than later. There is no time to waste.
Needless to say, the weekend is long and agonizing. Karen gives the bad news to the family but not to their children. She refuses to believe the tumor is malignant and is convinced the surgery will go well.
She spends hours online gathering frightening and depressing information about brain tumors. Ted Kennedy, Susan Hayward, Beau Biden, Lee Atwater, George Gershwin, Lou Rawls, Bobby Van, Pete Rozelle, Wilma Rudolph—they are just a few of those who died from a glioblastoma. On average, they survived a year after being diagnosed.
Well-known people who died from a glioblastoma. On average, they survived a year after diagnosis.
top left: Lee Atwater, 40
top right: Wilma Rudolph, 54
middle left: George Gershwin, 38
middle right: Edward “Ted” M. Kennedy, 77
bottom left: Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden, III, 46
bottom right: Susan Hayward, 57