Like Tommy, be scared, then make the best of it

A hospital smell is a serious smell. It conjures anesthesia, needles, scalpels. Not a place you'd volunteer to lie down in, even for a day.

Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson on Monday was on the sixth floor of Carolinas Medical Center, recovering from open-heart surgery.

At the nurse's station, he was referred to not as Tommy but as Mr. Tomlinson, which in itself seemed about as serious as the hospital smell.

Last Thursday, surgeons opened Tommy up – sawed his breastbone in half – and removed a benign tumor from his heart.

The tumor was out in about 20 minutes. But it took more than three hours to open him up and stitch him back together. To his astonishment, Tommy says, the wound doesn't hurt much.

His recovery, in fact, has been remarkably good. By the time you read this, Tommy will be home.

Let me say a word about Tommy and me.

For years, we sat side-by-side at work. We both grew up Baptist, have roots in Georgia. We got along fine.

Fine, that is, after he put me in my place one afternoon.

Tommy sneezed.

Instinctively, I asked: “Are you catching a cold?”

“No, I'm not,” he said. “But thanks, Mom.”

It was a nice way of letting me know he didn't much cotton to my mothering.

Our rapport since has been even easier.

So I dove in Monday and asked him what this tumor had done to his sense of predictability.

The fact is, Tommy had his predictability meter knocked askew 15 years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the voice box.

Here he is, only 44. Cancer and open-heart surgery. One doctor calls him “the odd tumor guy.”

So Tommy knows better than most that life is really random.

“We like to think we can make our own luck,” he says. “Until something smacks you out of nowhere.”

When it does, he says, it's a pretty reliable test to see how you react – getting on with it or falling apart.

For instance, before the diagnosis, Tommy and his wife, Alix, were wondering how to make room in their lives for his upcoming Nieman Fellowship to Harvard.

Packing up. Visiting family. Getting it all done.

Then, bam, the move and surgery.

“We all underestimate our capacity to deal with things,” Tommy says. “It's pretty surprising what human beings can put up with. It stretches your imagination, helps you figure out what you're capable of.”

Was he scared?

You bet. Really scared.

Scared for rational reasons and scared for irrational reasons. Like what next? Will another tumor pop up? Will he survive that one?

Tommy would like you to know that it's OK to be scared.

Good thing. There's plenty to be scared about. As blues singer Dr. John wrote, “Life is a near-death experience.”

Which has its good side.

If we go to bed scared, there's a better chance we'll wake vowing to make the very best of this one day dawning right now.