It felt like a kick in the groin, recalls Natan Santacruz of the pain he felt one morning after an intense run.
He was 23, a college sophomore, and a competitive long-distance runner. He was used to pushing through adversity to achieve his goals, be it trying to break a 6-minute mile in half-marathons or earning a psychology degree at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“So I pushed off seeing a doctor and stuck to my routine,” Natan says. “But then it didn’t get better on its own. It got worse.”
In his anatomy class, he self-diagnosed a hernia, chalking it up to his workouts. His doctor in New Jersey disagreed. After an ultrasound, Natan had his results read the same day by a family friend, a radiation oncologist. The friend invited Natan and his mother over for dinner, where he told Natan that he had a 1-inch tumor in his right testicle.
“I was in shock,” Natan says. “I just kept thinking about all the worst possible scenarios.”
The oncologist friend made an appointment for Natan with Dr. James McKiernan, urologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and chair of the Department of Urology of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“He said he was the best,” Natan says, “and he said we’d be in great hands.”
What came next, after Dr. McKiernan explained testicular cancer to Natan, was another test of the athlete’s mental strength. After his testicle was surgically removed, tests found some vascular invasion, which indicates that the cancer may have spread beyond the testicle. Natan was told he would need a more invasive surgery to find out for sure. In December 2012, Dr. McKiernan and his team made a large incision from Natan’s sternum to his groin, temporarily removed his bowels, then removed all 27 retroperitoneal lymph nodes in a hard-to-reach place behind the organs in the abdomen.
“But the best news I got was the next day when Dr. McKiernan came to see me,” Natan says. “He said they took out 27 lymph nodes and dissected them right there when I was on the table and didn’t find evidence of it spreading.”
In the days after his operation, Natan was fighting pain yet felt “pathetic” as he lay in bed watching TV. When his Foley urinary catheter was due to be removed, Natan recalls feeling exposed and embarrassed, and his anxieties spiked. But when the nurse took it out, “I remember feeling like I was really safe in her hands,” he says. “I was willing to trust, let go of my desire to be in control, and just let her be in control of my care.”
He continues, “I think that’s the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I think that’s where I really started to notice how wonderful the role of nursing really is because of their patience, sensitivity, and kindness. They were able to make a big difference in my emotional recovery and made me feel a little bit better about myself.”
This wasn’t the first time that Natan experienced great care from nurses.
As a child, he had undergone 10 surgeries by age 10 because he was born with microtia and atresia in his left ear. “I was basically born without an outer or middle ear,” he explains.
Although being in the hospital can be especially scary for children, Natan says he remembers loving it there. “My nurses were amazing. We played video games together and played Nintendo.”