I am a physician who specializes in pediatrics and infectious diseases, and a head and neck cancer survivor. I was born and raised in Israel, graduated from the Hebrew University School of Medicine in Jerusalem, and completed my pediatric training at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, Israel.
I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2008. Regrettably, my cancer recurred after it was initial treated and my larynx (which contains the vocal cords) had to be removed. Becoming a laryngectomee (a person without vocal cords) was a trying experience that affected my most fundamental functions – speaking, breathing and eating.
Communicating with others became a challenge for me and I had to learn how to speak again. Speaking requires mastering daily procedures and techniques using equipment and devices that have to operate in the most optimal way for me to be heard and understood. Furthermore, I had to face new medical issues that emerged as a result of the treatment I had received, and had to confront many psychological, and social issues. Becoming a patient with a serious illness after practicing medicine for over 40 years allowed me to understand the hardship and difficulties that patients face in ways I could not have done before.
I realized that there was very little information available to assists head and neck cancer survivors including laryngectomees in coping with their new condition. Furthermore, most physicians and nurses are not familiar with these practical issues. I had to gather materials from many sources to learn how to deal with my new daily tasks and routines. I did it by searching and reading the medical literature, and learning from physicians, speech and language pathologist, mental health providers and fellow head and neck cancers patients.
Recognizing that there was an urgent need for a guidebook that could help voiceless individuals, their family members, as well as their medical providers with everything they need to know about this condition, I embarked on preparing one. The 170 pages “ Laryngectomee Guide” I authored provides practical information that assists patients in regaining their ability to speak, and cope with medical, dental and psychological issues. It also contains information about the side effects of radiation treatment and chemotherapy; how to care for their airway, stoma, and voice prosthesis; how to overcome eating and swallowing problems; and how to travel.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery adopted the Guide and made it available for free download from its website. The Guide has been translated from English to many other languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Bulgarian, Italian, and more). The translations were performed by medical professionals from the corresponding countries and the Guide became available for download free of charge from the websites of medical societies in each of these countries. The Guide is also given out in print in many of these countries thanks to generous grants by charitable organizations as well as the countries’ cancer societies. It became a helpful tool in educating cancer patients throughout the world within five years.
The Guide became available also in countries throughout the Middle East after it has been translated to Arabic, Iranian (Farsi), and Turkish. It is used by head and neck surgeons, speech and language pathologists, as well as patients with head and neck cancer in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Dubai. I have been receiving many messages of appreciation from head and neck cancer patients, as well as medical professionals in these countries.
The translation of the Guide into Arabic has a great significance to me. I regard this as a small attempt to contribute to the cause of peace and understanding and enhance the coexistence between Israel and its neighbors. It may serve as a testimony that alleviating patient suffering and improving people’s lives has no borders.
Helping and caring for non-Israelis is not new for me. I served as a medic in the Six Day War and a battalion physician in the Yom Kippur War, during which I treated many wounded Jordanian and Egyptian prisoners of war. I delivered them the best care I could give under the difficult circumstances of war, sometimes risking my own life doing that. I am proud that I was able to save many lives and alleviate suffering. Caring for these prisoners of war offered me an inner gratification during these difficult times. I felt that even in the midst of the chaos of war, I could cherish the sanctity of human life, a value with which I had been brought up with. I knew that, as a Jew and as a medical professional I could not act differently.
Making the Guide available in countries with whom we have fought wars and with whom we still have political disagreements is for me a continuation of what I did as a young medic and physician during times of battle. Having the Guide help patients all over the Middle East and in other countries is part and parcel of the fundamental values of medicine and an acknowledgement that those of us in the medical professions are called on to help the sick anywhere they are.
Itzhak Brook MD, MSc
Dr. Brook is a professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington DC. He is a speaker for the Israeli Embassy in the United States, and the author of the books “My Voice, A physician’s personal experience with throat cancer”, “The Laryngecomee Guide”, and “In the Sands of Sinai- A physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War”