"Masterpieces" running on the playground: My Riley Hero

September 3, 2014
Topics: Riley Kid Story, Cancer (oncology)

Chris Edwards
Riley neurosurgeon Joel Boaz, M.D., with my son Ben.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and as I tried to think about what I would like for people to be most aware of when it comes to childhood cancer, I kept coming back to one thing, or rather, one person: Dr. Joel Boaz. He’s my hero.

Over three years ago when we found out that a tumor was growing on our son Ben’s cerebellum and spinal cord, we brought him to Riley. On that first day, Dr. Boaz popped his head in but did not say much. Everyone we spoke to told us that Dr. Boaz was an eminent pediatric neurosurgeon, one of the world’s best. I had no reason to doubt this, but I did not think it would matter.

I had seen Ben’s MRI and a tumor clutched Ben’s brain stem and snaked down on to the top of his spinal column. It did not look like a surgical resection would be possible.

Two days later; Dr. Boaz removed the entire tumor without harming any of Ben’s brain tissue. It is now three years later and Ben is not only cancer-free but has suffered no cognitive impairments at all. I don’t know what I can compare this level of skill to. What Dr. Boaz did was the technical equivalent of painting the Mona Lisa, but this analogy is not quite right. Nobody would have died if Da Vinci had missed a brush stroke. Besides, Dr. Boaz possesses an earned talent more impressive than any Renaissance painter.

Da Vinci’s best works hang in a museum where people must stare at it from afar. Dr. Boaz’s masterpieces are running around on the playground.

I remember that when Dr. Boaz found out I was a teacher he said that he thought teaching was the second most important job in the world next to parenting. (I assured him that when your child has a brain tumor that neurosurgery is the most important profession.) I remember how excited he was to see Ben’s clean MRI the day after the surgery. He introduces himself to people as “Joel.” Everybody who knows him calls him that, but I couldn’t do that if I tried. He’s Dr. Boaz to me and my wife.

A week after he saved Ben the first time, Dr. Boaz had to do it again by installing a shunt in order to drain fluid from Ben’s skull. Ben needed a port installed in his chest for his subsequent radiation treatments and he also had to have a spinal tap. Dr. Boaz arranged for all of these procedures to be done at the same time and he performed Ben’s surgery last, late on a Friday afternoon, so that Ben would only have to be put under anesthetic one time. A shunt installation is a complex surgery, but my wife read a book during Ben’s operation and I graded a stack of essay tests. Ben was with Dr. Boaz and we knew he would be fine.

We try to say “thank you” to Dr. Boaz but I don’t think he can hear us. The Roman Emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius once shared some wisdom that, I think, explains why:

“There is a type of person who, if he renders you a service, has no hesitation in claiming the credit for it. Another, though not prepared to go so far as that, will nevertheless secretly regard you as in his debt and be fully conscious of what he has done. But there is also the man who, one might almost say, has no consciousness at all of what he has done, like the vine which produces a cluster of grapes and then, having yielded its rightful fruit, looks for no more thanks than a horse that has run his race…”

Dr. Boaz is too focused on helping his next patient to spend much time celebrating those he has saved. In that respect, he embodies the spirit of Riley Hospital, and the things I’ve written about him also apply to the staff at Riley. Our contact with Dr. Boaz encapsulates what the hospital offers: supremely talented caregivers who always put the needs of the kids first.

This is what people should be aware of this month. Riley Hospital does incredible things because it employs incredible people and it can do this only the community financially supports it.

Dr. Boaz saved my son. Dr. Boaz is my hero. I guess I just wanted everybody, especially him, to know that.

Chris Edwards, Ed. D.

Chris Edwards, Ed.D, teaches AP World History teacher at Fishers High School, and is the author of several books including 'Teaching Genius: Redefining Education with Lessons from Science and Philosophy.' Chris donates the royalties from 'Teaching Genius' to Riley Children's Foundation in support of pediatric cancer research at Riley Hospital. Chris and his wife Beth live in New Palestine are the parents of two boys, Blake, and Ben, who is doing well after being treated at Riley for a cancerous brain tumor.

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