David Campbell is a survivor of polio and pancreatic cancer. He keeps his wheelchair from childhood in his office as a reminder of the obstacles he has already overcome during his lifetime.
ALBANY, Ga. — The wheelchair sits in David Campbell’s office at the newly renovated Merry Acres Inn motel/restaurant/conference center complex.
It’s a reminder.
That wheelchair is a link to a long-ago — but not forgotten — past when young David and four of his neighborhood peers contracted polio. The chair’s metal has dulled over the decades, but memories of trips to Warm Springs in northeast Georgia for treatment and rehab are no more than a glance away.
Campbell kept that wheelchair as a reminder of a traumatic part of his boyhood that he overcame. Little did he realize it would come in handy more than a half-century later as a talisman, a motivational tool that whispered, “You can beat this ... you’ve done it before.”
In May of this year, the heretofore supremely healthy businessman, who’d given up on retirement to help his son, Stewart Campbell, and his partner, Bo Henry, resurrect the Merry Acres complex, started to feel lethargic. Eventual tests offered the worst kind of news. Campbell had pancreatic cancer.
“I went to a couple of doctors, and no one could put their finger on what it was,” said Campbell, who helped run the family Medley Restaurant Equipment and Supply Co. with the man who would become his father-in-law, Gaines Medley, and his brother-in-law Reed Jackson for 43 years. “My wife Lynda called my dear friend and neighbor (O.B.) Buddy Carter and asked him to take a look at me.
“Buddy is a retired physician, and he told me the symptoms I had were not good. He told me to make an appointment with (gastroenterologist) Ira Knepp. Ira got me in quick, did blood work one day and a CAT scan the next. When I came out of the CAT scan, they told me, ‘Your room is ready’. ”
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital surgical oncologist Troy Kimsey delivered the bad news.
“Dr. Kimsey told me they’d found a mass on my pancreas,” Campbell said. “He told me we didn’t need to mess around with it.”
Kimsey, the director of surgical oncology at Phoebe, told Campbell he would need “Whipple” surgery, a dramatic procedure in which a tumor, the “head” of the pancreas, the duodenum, the end of the common bile duct and the gallbladder are removed. Kimsey suggested Campbell have his mentor, Dr. Peter Allen, conduct the surgery.
“David was fortunate in that his tumor was located in the head of the pancreas,” Kimsey said. “When that happens, the tumor tends to obstruct the bile duct, which leads to the symptoms that David was having. Because most pancreatic cancer is so difficult to detect, by the time it manifests itself in a patient it is usually too late to perform surgery.
“Typically, 80 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are not candidates for surgery. And there’s just no way to screen for the disease.”
Adding to the alarming statistics associated with pancreatic cancer, Kimsey said the general five-year survival rate for the disease is around 4 percent.
Within 3 1/2 weeks of his diagnosis, Campbell was at the famed Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, ready for surgery.
“The first thing Dr. Allen did was run the same battery of tests they’d run on me here,” Campbell said. “They got the same results and told me what I’d need to do to prepare for surgery.”
On July 7, Campbell underwent the 3 1/2-hour operation. Rehab started the next day.
“Let me tell you, Whipple surgery is a kick in the butt,” he said. “They zip you open and really do a number on you before they put you back together. And at Sloan-Kettering they have this rehab guru who looks like a 6-foot-8 Charles Atlas, and he does not ease up on you.
“He starts working on you the next day, and you gradually go from ‘I can’t take another step’ to ‘I think I might be OK’.”
Campbell remained in New York for a week of in-hospital post-op care and almost four weeks of out-of-hospital follow-up. He was released in August and turned over to the care of Kimsey and the Phoebe Cancer Center.
“A lot of times at Sloan-Kettering, they won’t hand off a patient to another care facility,” Campbell said. “But Dr. Allen told me the care I would get at Phoebe is as good as I would get at Sloan-Kettering. That was reassuring.
“They handed me over to Dr. Kimsey and (hemotologist/oncologist) Dr. (Chirag) Jani, who have been just a phenomenal team. They and their staff have given me the kind of care I got in New York.”
Jani, who is scheduling and administering Campbell’s chemotherapy treatments, said his patient has taken a big step toward recovery simply by surviving surgery.
“As a rule, the chances that someone with pancreatic cancer who is a candidate for surgery might actually survive the surgery is only around 5 to 10 percent,” Jani said. “Certainly Mr. Campbell could have had the surgery here at Phoebe, but in a situation like this, with this form of cancer, we often suggest a second opinion.
“And Dr. Allen was a perfect choice to perform the surgery because of the volume of that type of surgery they perform at Sloan-Kettering. They might do eight to 10 a day there, and we have nowhere near that volume.”
Jani cautions, though, that recurrence is always a concern.
“There is a greater chance of recurrence after this type of surgery than there is for some other forms of cancer,” the oncologist said. “You don’t get the margin of tissue to take out that you can with some other surgeries. You can only take out a limited amount of tissue in that region.
“But Mr. Campbell is fortunate to be here at his home, where he is with family and his (medical) team is always available right away through a beeper or phone call. And, speaking frankly, even the national cancer treatment centers at Harvard, at the University of Massachusetts and at Sloan-Kettering can’t provide the up-to-date care that we have at Phoebe. Where our facilities and technology are brand new and state-of-the-art, their physical structures are 50 to 70 years old.”
The ending of this amazing story is now up to Campbell. Signs of recovery, which had initially come in tiny increments, now seem to have gained momentum. He’s gaining back the weight he lost, and he’s even back in his office doing work most days.
“I just feel very, very fortunate right now,” he said. “I feel blessed, primarily because of my friends and family. My brother and his wife flew up to New York to be with Lynda during my surgery, and when I got back my best friend John Temp Phillips was there to pick me up at the airport.
“My daughter-in-law set up a page on the Caring Bridge website, and it’s gotten more than 5,000 hits. And another friend who is a retired doctor comes over to check on me every day and change my bandages. I have so many wonderful friends and family members who are in this with me. That gives me strength.”
When word of Campbell’s so-far miraculous story spread, he was contacted by officials with Phoebe’s Lights of Love program. On the year that the hospital is celebrating its centennial and the 28th anniversary of the Lights of Love tree lighting, Campbell has been asked to tell about his ordeal and to officially light the tree that honors cancer victims and survivors.
“I watch the faces of the people at Lights of Love every year, and I see so much hope,” Phoebe Director of Volunteer Services Dianne Owens said. “That’s why David is such a wonderful choice to be this year’s tree lighter. He is an inspiration to people who have heard his story.
“He’s someone who has stood up to the challenge when faced with adversity. And he is dedicated to the fundraising cause that has been chosen for this year’s Lights of Love.”
Donations to the 2012 Lights of Love program, which will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at the hospital’s Wetherbee lobby, will help furnish and provide a private counseling area and a resource library in the Phoebe Cancer Center where patients may find real information about their particular form of cancer.
“I’m calling up a lot of the business associates I’ve come in contact with over the years, asking them to donate to this cause,” Campbell said. “I think it’s important that people have a source of accurate information to help them with their cancer treatment. There’s so much misinformation out there.
“When it comes to cancer, education is the key.”
That, the love and support of family and friends and, sometimes, a stark reminder that obstacles can be overcome.