The Heaven-Sent Miracle of This Family’s Profound Story

A life-saving message, a mysterious nurse and a surgeon in Philadelphia made this story unforgettable.

Posted in , Jul 25, 2022

Illustration by Charles Chaisson

Every family has a favorite story. The one they tell over and over. In my family the story begins in Springfield, Ohio, where Paw-Paw lived in the 1940s. Growing up, spending summers with my grandparents, I never tired of hearing it. I can still see myself sitting out on the porch, listening to Paw-Paw intently, though I already knew every word by heart. Paw-Paw was a tough man. Men of color weren’t given a lot of opportunities back then, but he started several successful businesses, including a company that provided windows for commercial buildings, and a popular neighborhood grocery. He even owned real estate. He wasn’t the type of man to make up a story.

“The doctors diagnosed me with esophageal cancer,” Paw-Paw explained again one summer night in his low, gravelly voice as we sat outside on the porch. “Probably from all those years of cigar smoking.” Paw-Paw consulted with doctors at Ohio State University of Medicine and was sent to a clinic in Cleveland for treatment. “In those days, if you were diagnosed with cancer, the odds you would survive were pretty slim.” Six other men with the same condition went with him. They were all scheduled for surgery.

“It was the night before mine,” Paw-Paw said, looking up at the stars. “I’d been a patient long enough to know all the staff, the routines. But that night a new nurse appeared. I’d never seen her before. She didn’t check my temperature or fluff my pillows. She brought me a message.”

“What was the message, Paw-Paw?” I asked, on cue.

“She told me I was not to have my surgery in Cleveland,” he answered. “Well, that didn’t make any sense. Where else would I have it? I asked her to explain, but she just repeated that I ought to cancel my surgery. Then she left.”

I tried to picture my grandfather as a younger man, sitting in a hospital bed after that strange encounter.

“I might have just dismissed the whole thing,” Paw-Paw said, “if it wasn’t for your Maw-Maw and the Egg Man.”

I grinned. Oh yes, I knew about the Egg Man. I could tell this part of the story as well as he could. “It was a Monday afternoon, years before you met that nurse,” I said. “Monday was Maw-Maw’s wash day. She was out in the yard hanging clothes on the line when she saw a man walk up the drive. ‘Want to buy some eggs?’ the man asked, holding some out in his hand. Maw-Maw didn’t need any eggs. But she and the man got to talking.”

“Your grandmother’s never met a stranger,” Paw-Paw said with a chuckle. “She talked to everyone she met like a friend.”

The conversation turned to good health. The Egg Man said there was one man responsible for how good he felt. “Chevrolet Jackson,” he declared. “A surgeon out in Philadelphia. If you ever have a throat problem, especially if you need surgery, don’t let anyone touch you but him. Chevrolet Jackson. Remember that name.”

In the end Maw-Maw did buy a few eggs. She also called everyone she knew and told them about the Egg Man. “And she never forgot that name,” I said. “Chevrolet Jackson.”

“Neither did I,” Paw-Paw said. “Your maw-maw made sure of it. Her encounter at the clothesline all came back to me in the hospital that night. I got right up out of bed and got dressed. The doctors and nurses all thought I was crazy, but I canceled my surgery and left with my X-rays and medical records all the same. Then Maw-Maw and I drove home, wondering how on earth we’d ever find this Chevrolet Jackson in Philly.”

They must have been scared. I thought, looking up at Paw-Paw on the porch. They didn’t even know if this surgeon existed. And Chevrolet Jackson didn’t even sound like a real name!

It was the middle of the night when Paw-Paw and Maw-Maw got back to Springfield, but a neighbor across the street noticed their light on and went over to investigate. “We were both pretty upset,” Paw-Paw admitted. “We had no idea what to do next, and bounced some ideas off our neighbor. He went home, determined to help. He spent all night making phone calls, talking to Philadelphia operators and hospitals to see if anyone had heard of this doctor. All his detective work revealed that, in fact, Dr. Jackson existed. Not only that. Thanks to our neighbor’s persistence, the doctor was expecting us on the next train!”

Seven hours later my grandparents were sitting patiently in the doctor’s office. Less than 24 hours after that, he was in surgery. “I had to remove your larynx,” Dr. Jackson said when Paw-Paw woke up. “I also took some extra tissue from your esophagus to make sure I got all the cancer. God allows me to feel what I need to take.”

Paw-Paw tried to respond to this news, but he couldn’t. A metal tube had been inserted in his neck. Dr. Jackson put a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll have to relearn to talk, controlling your breathing around your vocal chords,” he said. “But you will live. That’s the important thing. I can’t guarantee that you won’t ever die of cancer, but I know it won’t be from this kind of cancer.”

Paw-Paw and Maw-Maw stayed in Philadelphia for six weeks while Paw-Paw learned to speak without his larynx. That’s what gave him that familiar, gravelly tone I’d come to love so well. Eventually they were able to return to Springfield. Dr. Jackson arranged for a one-year follow-up visit back at the Ohio State University of Medicine. Paw-Paw leaned in close to me on the porch. “When I walked in there, the doctor who had sent me to Cleveland for surgery looked like he’d seen a ghost. I soon found out why. He remembered me from that group of men the year before. By then I was the only one still alive.”

Despite the warm summer night, I shivered. Who was the Egg Man? The nurse? Why had they been sent with this life-saving message for Paw-Paw? As a child I didn’t doubt they were angels. They had to be. As an adult, of course, I became more skeptical. Yes, Paw-Paw had survived esophageal cancer at a time when few people did; a heart problem ended his life, not a returning cancer. But maybe the colorful cast of characters in the story had been exaggerated. Chevrolet Jackson? What kind of a name was that?

That was the attitude I had the night I attended a performance of a one-man show about President Harry Truman. It wasn’t the kind of entertainment I would have sought out on my own, but it was a fundraiser and I went as the guest of a friend. Midway through the show the Truman character started talking about exceptional Americans he knew. One of them was a surgeon from Philadelphia, a pioneer in discovering new techniques for treatment of disorders related to the voice.

No, not Chevrolet Jackson. Chevalier Jackson. The Egg Man or Maw-Maw had gotten the name wrong. But with the help of a mysterious nurse and a neighborhood detective, Paw-Paw found our family’s unforgettable story.

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