Emma Mullis saw Niagara Falls for the first time two weeks ago.
It was at night and it was sleeting. But none of that mattered.
She stood amazed at one of the wonders of the world, her ears filled with the roar of more than 700,000 gallons of water per second spilling over the top.
She dined on lobster in Maine and took a long walk out into the Chesapeake Bay, where the famous bridge tunnel stretches 23 miles across the water.
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“I went out on a pier that was about as long as from one end of Wal-Mart to the other,” she said. “I didn’t even have to stop and rest.”
Three months ago, those words never would have crossed her lips. She couldn’t walk to her mailbox and back.
She felt like a Mack truck had slammed into her back. On a scale of 1 to 10, her pain was about a 17.
It hurt to sit. So riding in a car on a 4,000-mile trip through 15 states was not her idea of a get-well remedy.
She had been diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago. After having a mastectomy and going through radiation and chemotherapy, she had hoped those storm clouds had blown away.
This time, though, the cancer had come back and knifed its way in her spine.
At first, she thought it might be arthritis. At 74 years old, you learn to live with all kinds of aches. Her stomach hurt, too, and she dismissed it as her nerves. It’s not easy chasing great grandchildren from room to room every day.
In January, she scheduled an appointment with her oncologist, Dr. Linda Hendricks, in Macon. The doctor ordered X-rays, a PET scan and MRI.
The bad news? The hot spot confirmed a tumor on her spine.
The good news? It was isolated.
Hendricks referred her to Dr. Art McCain, an interventional radiologist with Radiology Associates of Macon and an expert in treating spine fractures.
McCain has been practicing medicine since 1985. It’s also fitting that his name is Art, since he could be considered an artist at his profession. His peers would probably vote him as having the “best hands in Macon.” He is noted for his noninvasive interventional procedures and for being a champion of introducing innovative ways to help his patients.
He had an idea. A wonderful idea.
Mullis wasn’t certain about all the medical terminology he used. But she is quite sure he changed her quality of life.
McCain asked if she would be willing to let him perform a new procedure approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just two months earlier. It was not experimental. In fact, he had been working with one of the world’s largest medical technology development companies to introduce the Osteocool radiofrequency ablation system. It’s designed to remove metastatic spinal tumors and reduce patient pain. He had just returned from San Jose, California, where he received training to do the procedure.
By the way, he told her, she would be just the 10th person in the world to have it done.
‘IT WAS AMAZING’
Although Mullis admitted she had never been in the the top 10 in the world in anything, she was more than willing to be a pioneer if it would help ease her suffering.
“The tumor had weakened her spine,” McCain said. “Think of it as a building and the vertebra is 10 stories high. It had caved in to nine stories. She was immobile and in severe pain. She was miserable.”
McCain compared her back to rotting wood giving way under its own weight. She was the perfect candidate because the cancer was isolated.
The procedure took about 90 minutes. In recovery, Mullis rubbed her eyes, as if she was waking up from a dream.
“It was remarkable when I saw her in my office two weeks later,” said McCain. “I had to look at the chart to make sure I was in the right room. It was amazing.”
McCain has since performed the procedure on two other patients, including one case last week. This month he also traveled to both the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and the University of Florida to train others in the new procedure. He will present a paper on the topic at an international medical conference in Boston in October.
“When I saw her, she had a big smile on her face,” Hendricks said. “It was such a unique opportunity for her to be a part of this. I wasn’t sure I understood the significance of what he (McCain) had done until after it unfolded. It’s unusual to get a 100 percent response like that from a palliative standpoint.”
Mullis was born on Nov. 6, 1941, just a month and a day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. She was the oldest of six children, growing up in rural west Macon.
Her father, Roy Shores, was blind. He taught her to play the guitar when she was 11 years old. She and her husband, the late Calvin Mullis, and their three sons — Faron, Michael and Darrell — once had a bluegrass band.
She still plays piano at her church, Brookhaven Full Gospel Church on Columbus Road in Macon, as well as Tabernacle of Praise, a Pentecostal church not far from her home in Baldwin County, near the Fall Line Freeway near Milledgeville. She is retired after working as an assembler at Rheem Manufacturing.
She has a green thumb along with her bluegrass. She takes pride in the Knock Out roses in her front yard, along with irises, an amaryllis and wildflowers.
As a cancer survivor, she has rallied in support of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
“Life is precious,” she said. “I appreciate everything so much more now. So many people I know had cancer and didn’t make it, and I’m still here.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org