Willie Leftwich

Patient, 1995
Member, Washington Hospital Center Foundation Cancer Advisory Board
Former electrical engineer and attorney; now a potter

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF SEGREGATION
New Goal: To Become Oldest Surviving Cancer Patient

I'm a native Washingtonian, born in 1937, and can remember before MedStar Washington Hospital Center was built. At that time, everything was segregated, so most African-Americans went to Freedmen's Hospital. If you had to go to another hospital, you were cared for on a separate ward.

When I was six years old, for instance, I had to have my tonsils out at the old Children's Hospital. Well, Charlie—my white buddy from across the street—was having his out at the same time. We were on the same floor, but the wards for black and white children were separated by an automatic door. So, Charlie and I kept on going back and forth to visit each other and play—he liked our food better (hot dogs and beans versus chicken and vegetables) and I thought the white ward had better toys. One of the nurses finally caught us and said we couldn't do that, and the next time we tried, the door was locked! Funny thing is, in the early 1970s, I served on the new Children's Hospital Board of Directors!

Other than the usual things—a football injury, allergies—I was always pretty healthy and managed to steer clear of any hospital until 1995. But for several days, I just wasn't feeling right, had trouble sleeping and eating. So I went to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where they performed a battery of tests to see what was wrong. Nothing showed up, except some rebound pain when my physician physically examined me. So they decided that maybe it was appendicitis. When my surgeon, Dr. Ahad, opened me up, though, it turned out to be much worse than that. I had colon cancer, and it just hadn't shown up on the tests the way it normally does.

After surgery, I had to undergo a year's worth of chemotherapy at the Hospital Center. I'll tell you right now the people at the Infusion Center are some of the best I'll ever know. They have the hardest, most thankless jobs, yet are so professional, and have so much empathy for their patients. At my last treatment, I thanked them from the bottom of my heart, gave each and every one of them a gift, and said, "I hope I never have to see you again!"

Today, I'm cancer-free, but still make an appointment with Dr. Priebat, my oncologist, twice a year, whether he wants me to see me or not! My experience with cancer really changed my life. I left my law practice, and discovered the joys of making pottery instead. I also joined the Washington Hospital Center Foundation's Cancer Advisory Board as a way to thank them for saving my life; the board helps raise funds for the Cancer Institute. The Cancer Institute has really grown in the 10 years since I was a patient—today, it sees patients from all over. I want to do what I can to help them advance even further—through prevention of this terrible disease and assuring funds to care for the poor.

Other than that, my only aim in life nowadays is to become Washington Cancer Institute's oldest surviving former patient!