DONALD HAMON HAD WORKED CONSTRUCTION all his life. Every weekday for about 45 years, he would wake up, grab his tool belt, and drive to a work site where he’d labor and sweat beneath the sun until it set. Then he’d return to his home in rural West Harrison, Indiana, to enjoy his children and eventually his grandchildren. It was on one of those evenings, in early 2005, while Hamon was wrestling around with his grandson on the living-room floor, that the 9-year-old made a discovery.
“Grandpa,” said the boy, “you have a spot behind your ear.”
Sure enough, as Hamon ran his finger behind his right ear, he could feel the tiny raw patch of skin. It was hidden, so he couldn’t see it in the mirror. Nor could he remember ever feeling any pain. His wife confirmed the spot, no bigger than a punch hole, and told him he should have it looked at. So the 63-year-old Hamon did what many men do: He cleaned the wound, let it scab over, and promptly tried to forget about it.
Except the patch never healed. The scabs kept coming off, usually as Hamon slept. Almost a year went by. The spot grew to nearly the size of a nickel. Hamon couldn’t wait any longer. He picked up the phone and called a dermatologist in Aurora, Indiana, about 17 miles south of his home.
The doctor booked him for an appointment the following week, and it was then that Hamon learned the patch was cancerous—an aggressive form of squamous-cell carcinoma that had spread to his parotids, the body’s largest salivary glands. A team of doctors first removed almost a quarter of his right ear in an emergency surgery to head off the cancer. Later they took out his parotids, along with lymph nodes. Then began the radiation therapy. After 32 grueling treatments, Hamon was finally pronounced cancer-free.
That should have been the end of the nightmare. But then, in May of 2010 as Hamon was mowing the lawn, a tree branch clipped his right ear. It started to ooze blood and never stopped. Having learned from his potentially fatal mistake 5 years earlier, Hamon phoned his dermatologist in Aurora and was told the doctor would be able to see him—in 4 to 6 months.
Four to 6 months? No, no. This was Donald Hamon, Ham-on, he told them. A former patient with a history of cancer in this very ear.
This was an emergency.
Sorry, they said. The doctor’s appointment book was packed.
He called another dermatologist in the same building.
Four to 6 months.
He called a couple of specialists at the Western Hills campus of UC Health Dermatology, 19 miles away.
Six months or longer.
Cincinnati, 25 miles east?
Booked solid into next year.
Hamon went to his family practitioner, but all the doctor could do with his limited dermatological training was assist in trying to find a time, a cancellation, anything with an area dermatologist. Days became weeks that stacked into months without an opening. Hamon’s physical state didn’t improve. His mental state worsened. All he could envision was a tumor barnacled to his skull. He began to prepare himself for the idea that he might not be around much longer, that he was going to die in the distant, solitary waiting room his life had become.
HAMON WAS LUCKY HE DIDN’T FACE A similar wait back in 2006. That same year, two researchers at the University of California at San Francisco’s school of medicine decided to conduct an experiment. Posing as worried patients, they phoned 851 dermatologists across the country for an appointment to have a suspicious “changing mole” checked out. The average wait time: 38 days. In some cities, like Boston, the wait was as long as 73 days. That would have provided a 10-week head start for what could have been aggressive cancer.
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