I never knew my Grandma Julia, after whom I was named, because she died several years before I was born. But, to this day, my grandmother inspires me with admiration and awe, especially because of the way she and my grandfather handled her cancer diagnosis in 1928, when my mother was just 11 years old.
Grandma Julia had been sick for a year. The New York doctors had been treating her for ulcers, but she continued to get worse. She went alone to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, in Michigan, where she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Rather than being operated on there, she “ran away” to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where my grandfather joined her. The Mayo Clinic was famous, even then, for being able to diagnose and treat the “difficult cases.”
It was Dr. Charles Mayo – the Charles Mayo – who opened her up, closed her up, and gave my grandfather the bad news: my grandmother would be dead in 6 months.
But my grandfather, Morris Turitz (worth a story in himself), was not one to give up. He was one of the founders of the socialist Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. It was his “bible.”
In those days, The Forward carried many columns, one by a Dr. Chleminitsky, from Vienna, who wrote about all sorts of health problems. His aim was to educate the recent immigrants to the US.
One of Dr. Chleminitsky’s columns told of a cancer treatment in Frankfurt-am-Main. My grandfather telegraphed; the reply was hopeful, so my grandmother -- accompanied by my uncle Marko, who spoke German fluently -- took the next boat to Germany. (Remember, this was before airplanes! It was also before Hitler; so Jews could safely travel to Germany.)
In Germany, my grandmother was treated for 6 months, with a combination of ex-ray (radiation) and oxygen (96%) and carbon dioxide (4%). When she came home, my mom tells me that Grandma Julia looked better than she had ever seen her look. Her cancer was in remission, where (with some follow-up treatments) it stayed for several more years.
When Grandma Julia returned to her New York doctors, they were puzzled and embarrassed. They submitted her to examination by many, many doctors – including some from the Rockefeller Institute and Mt. Sinai Hospital, to name two. All the doctors were shocked; several said she never had cancer at all!
When Grandma Julia died in 1939, my mom was 22 years old, having finished college and graduate school. She was out on her own, working. Quite a different story from if she had been left motherless at eleven!
Every year, after her return home, my grandmother sent Dr. Charles Mayo a New Year’s card and he acknowledged it. She outlived him by a few months.
I love hearing my mom tell this story. She is now nearly 90, lives a healthy life and takes as few pharmaceuticals as possible. But every time she tells this story, I want to comment that, yes, it is amazing to me that my grandparents had such “chutzpah” and such “sechel” (wisdom) way back then. And yes, it is remarkable that the Modern German Medicine of the late 1920s gave my Grandma Julia eleven precious extra years of life.
But I always want to add that it is also amazing to me (and not in a good way!) that the treatment that saved my grandmother nearly 80 years ago – radiation – is one of the very same treatments oncologists still use on their patients today.
How far has “Modern Medicine” really come?