Fifteen years ago, Alan Alda found himself 8,000 feet high on a mountain in Chile. As host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, he came to interview the astronomers at the ALMA Observatory.
Suddenly he felt a tickle in his gut. It got worse and he started to crumple. As he lay on a blue vinyl bench, he glanced at the medic across the lobby. “From the look on his face,” Alan recalled, “I could tell he had never done anything medical before.”
“Are you alright?” the medic asked.
“No,” Alan said, with acute distress visible all over his face. “I got this pain. It started here and it went down here. I think maybe I have appendicitis.”
“Yeah, I think so too,” the medic mumbled.
They put Alan in an ambulance. He described it as one of those old boxy vehicles, maybe 50 years old, like they had on MASH. They can’t get it started. They’re kicking at the motor. Alan’s screaming in pain. Finally, they get him down this bumpy mountain road. In an hour they reach a dimly lit ER in a town called La Serena.
The surgeon there, Nelson Zepeda, was amazing. He knew right away what the problem was. It wasn’t the appendix but the intestine. About a yard of it got crimped off and lost its blood supply. In two more hours the intestine would be dead and so would Alan.
The doctor looked at Alan through his rimless glasses and said, “We have to cut out the bad part of your intestine and sew the two good ends together.”
“Oh, you’re gonna do an end-to-end anastomosis?”
Astonished, the doctor asked, “How do you know that?”
“I did many of them on MASH,” Alan said.
His real sickness, Alan says now, was his attempt to get a laugh out of the doctor.
“But look what he did,” Alan says. “He explained it to me in the simplest terms that were completely accurate. He looked me in the eye to see if I was following him. It wasn’t good enough to tell me what was wrong with me. He had to be sure I understood it.”
Alan’s story amused the dinner crowd of the Israel Cancer Research Fund on Nov. 5 at the Edison Ballroom in New York’s Theatre District. The emcee was Ben Brafman, one of the country’s most prominent criminal defense lawyers whose clients have included Puff Daddy, Michael Jackson, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and, now, Harvey Weinstein.
“Since that night in Chile,” Alan continued, “I understood so clearly what the surgeon had done to me as doctor to patient, and it was the same thing we were doing on the science program for the previous 10 years. It was connecting with the person you’re trying to communicate with.”
Alan said that last spring he was in Israel connecting with scientists. He intends to return this spring to visit scientists who are funded by ICRF in their work to discover a cure for cancer. “Next year in Jerusalem,” he said.
ICRF president Rob Densen presented lifetime achievement awards to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations; Dr. Myron Schwartz, clinical director of the Mount Sinai Liver Cancer Program; and Alan the actor who’s also a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
Introducing Hoenlein, Ronald Lauder said, “What can I say about Malcolm that he has not already said about himself. He knows more people in the White House than anybody I know. When I mention someone important, he says, ‘Yes, I spoke to him yesterday.’”
Densen also handed Alan a 23andMe kit to probe his ancestry.
“I already took the test,” Alan said. “They told me I was 4 percent Jewish and 6 percent Neanderthal. I want to find out if I’m genetically Jewish. My wife Arlene is Jewish the regular way.”
Brafman cautioned him: “If your kit comes back more than 50 percent Jewish, circumcision is mandatory.”