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Mike O'Donnell often worked long hours as a stagehand at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, waking up early to set up scenery, lights and props for a performance, and staying late into the night after the last curtain call disassembling the show production.
Mike was usually commuting to and from work in the dark, so he hardly noticed that his skin had started to turn yellow. When the color didn't fade, he thought he had pneumonia and scheduled an appointment with his physician.
After several trips to see physicians, Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Before seeking treatment, he and his family did their homework. They turned to Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH) and Malcolm Bilimoria, MD, after hearing recommendations from friends.
Dr. Bilimoria is the director of the Illinois Center for Pancreatic and Hepatobiliary Diseases at NCH and a surgical oncologist who specializes in pancreatic and hepatobiliary surgeries, including the Whipple procedure, a complex surgery to remove tumors in the head of the pancreas.
"I was scared, but Dr. Bilimoria told me what I was in store for," Mike says. "I would be undergoing the Whipple procedure."
The Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy, is the most common operation performed for pancreatic cancer symptoms. It is also used in the treatment of other types of cancer, including small bowel cancer. Surgeons remove the head of the pancreas, parts of the stomach and small intestine, some lymph nodes, the gallbladder and the common bile duct. The remaining organs are reconnected in a new way to allow digestion. Patients leave the hospital in 14 days, on average.
Dr. Bilimoria has performed more than 600 Whipple surgical procedures in his career and helped put Mike's's mind at ease. "Dr. Bilimoria came with such a positive outlook that he made me less afraid of going through the surgery," Mike says. "The staff members also were super nice and they always had smiles on their faces."
In April 2012, Dr. Bilimoria performed the Whipple procedure on Mike at NCH. After 10 days in the hospital he was discharged to a rehabilitation center for one week.
Once he returned to his home in the Northwest suburbs, Mike slowly got back into his old routine and planted a vegetable garden and performed outdoor landscaping work.
"My next-door neighbor told me I was doing more work outside than her husband," he says. "I was feeling better and getting back to full strength."
Now that he's back in good health, Mike also spends his free time helping other patients. He attends the Pancreas and Hepatobiliary Support Group sponsored by NCH and provides a a unique perspective on the surgery.
"I just try to make the patients feel comfortable," he says. "Many of them have the same questions I had before my Whipple, and I am happy to provide them with my first-hand knowledge."