Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

Becca is pumped about the surgery. The night before, after making pizza with Meghan, she sleeps soundly while her parents toss and turn down the hall, waiting for the alarm clock to tell them it’s time to drive back to Philly and let a woman they’ve just met cut open their little girl.

“BECCA? CAN YOU HEAR ME?" It’s 9:30 a.m., and Becca is being put under sedation in Operating Room Number One. An anesthesia team of three attends to her, telling her to take deep breaths and relax; they coo like a trio of angels sending her off to slumber. Only a half hour ago, Becca sat on a gurney, her parents standing on either side, her chin quivering slightly. She didn’t protest as Bob kissed her goodbye — a barely noticeable giveaway to her nervousness. Sue and Bob both told her how proud they were of her, that she would do great, that she was great. For a moment, Becca looked like she might cry, but she swallowed, and it passed. Then she was wheeled away, and Sue and Bob hugged each other hard and headed down the hallway for the waiting room.

Bob’s elderly father and aunt are here; so is his sister, Ronnie. Little Bobby sprawls across a sofa and plops his head in Sue’s lap, unable to go to school, where he’d be too worried about Becca today to concentrate. “I’m gonna have a heart attack before this is all over,” Bob says, flopping down next to his father, an older version of him, right down to the dimples.

Back in the O.R., a shelf is tacked with CDs, but Schnaufer is old-fashioned. Her preferred soundtrack is that of beeping monitors and hissing electric scalpels and lasers, and she prefers scrub dresses to the scrub pants and shirts worn by her colleagues. She needs to stand on two stools to do her work; even so, she comes only to the chin of Himelstein. Joining the two is a cadre of nurses, anesthesiologists and surgical assistants. Schnaufer makes the first cut, and eventually Becca’s insides are on view. Her heart jumps with every beat; her lungs pulse. As Schnaufer works her way toward the tumor, Himelstein goes to the phone and calls a medical resident.

“Hey, there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an Ewing’s in situ,” he says, referring to Becca’s rare form of cancer. “Tell whoever wants to come that we’re in O.R. One. You won’t see anything like this again for a long, long time.”

Schnaufer is grimacing with determination as she works a vise-like instrument inside Becca’s chest cavity to cut the rib away. Finally there’s a cracking noise, and Schnaufer triumphantly holds the bone aloft; for the moment she looks like a symphony director holding a baton, and everyone laughs. The rib is encased on one end by the tumor. “It’s smaller than I thought it’d be,” she says — the size of a golf ball, and bumpy, like a lemon. “It sure looks dead to me. We’ll have to see.”