Lung-Sparing Cancer Surgery Returns Dara's Joy

This is truly the hardest thing I have ever written, because it’s nearly impossible to express all of the emotions and gratitude that I have inside of me on the subject of Dr. Raja Flores. My name is Dara Joy Cohen and since the age of 5, I had dreamed of a life in the spotlight doing the one thing I believed I was meant to do - perform as a dancer, singer, and an actress and I spent my entire life working toward that dream. I was doing shows all over the world, Broadway, regional and touring, and auditioning endlessly, but in 2006 my health took a dramatic turn.

It started with pneumonia. Hospitalized for two weeks, my health deteriorated when I got a staph infection as well. From that day forward, I was in and out of hospitals with infections in my lung. Every time I got back on my feet to sing again, another infection would appear. I could hardly breathe, and the worst part was that I couldn’t stop wheezing or coughing every time I took in a breath. I knew something was seriously wrong but it seemed like nobody was listening to my outcry.

Misdiagnosed and Misguided Surgical Advice

Pulmonologists initially misdiagnosed me with asthma and pumped me on steroids to treat this so called ‘asthma.’ I would call every night to the emergency lines and tell them nothing was working. They just said to take more pumps of the inhalers or go to the emergency room. By 2010 it was so bad, I knew in my heart and soul that I was in serious trouble and there had to be an answer. I called my doctor at the time, who wasn’t hearing me at all and asked, "Can I PLEASE have a CT scan!?" He said, "Sure." I went to take the test a week later and the results showed soft tissue matter in the left main bronchus. I had no clue what that was, but I went to see a surgeon he recommended as he said to me, "It’s no big deal; we just want you to check it out." Next thing I know, I’m watching this man draw a diagram of how he was going to remove my entire left lung! I was thinking, ‘No way is this happening.’

He said it looked like a carcinoid so he  wanted to first scrape at it to open up my airway so I could breathe a bit better and then said down the road we would do the pneumonectomy. He was cold as ice and didn't care what I did for a living or that I was young. I went for another opinion and this physician was worse than the first telling me, "If it is a carcinoid, we have to just go right for the lung removal." He said "It is impossible to cut the trunk of a tree and save the branches," meaning that it was not a possibility being that the tumor was in the intersection of the tubes connecting, to cut it out and save any of my lung at all. He was so sure of himself, but wanted to pass me along to someone else, as if he didn’t even want to do the surgery. I left devastated.

A Dramatic Difference with Dr. Raja Flores at Mount Sinai

My doctor said he wanted me to meet one more surgeon - Dr Raja Flores at Mount Sinai. After being so disappointed and scared from meeting with the others, I just prayed to God saying, "PLEASE let this be the one." I walked in to the waiting area and I was listening to all the patients in the lobby that were talking about how wonderful and brilliant he was, and I started to have a great feeling that I was finally in the right place. When Dr. Flores came into the room, I had never experienced that kind of greeting from a doctor ever! He came right in, hugged me, and said to me, "You must be so scared, but you are going to be alright! I’m going to do everything I can." He sat, down, holding my hand the entire time as he held my mom’s with his other hand. Leaning in, he looked at me like a person - a REAL person, not just another patient. He explained to me that we will just take it slow and do the bronchoscopy first, because maybe it’s not even what we think it is. I unfortunately got another infection and the lung was starting to collapse. I was in so much pain, I was admitted a week before the test.

Dr. Flores came to see me every day and was by my side coaching me through every step of the way. He just had this way about him that made everything seem like it would be ok but he was also extremely honest. Many doctors don’t realize what that does for a patient who feels hopeless and afraid. It gave me so much strength and belief in him, and myself as well. Every time we spoke he asked me about my singing and dancing. I could see in his eyes that he understood what was most important and I knew he was going to fight for my best outcome.

The results came back and it was carcinoid cancer - and it didn’t look good. He explained that he needed to go in through my back in order to remove it and that he wouldn’t know what he was dealing with until he got in there to see but assured me he would do everything he could. I really believed him. He prepared me for the worst being that he may have to remove the lung or part of it, but would try his best to save it. I was nervous about the scar too and he said he would try to get in the best possible spot, so I can still wear almost anything without it being too noticeable. He cleared his entire day for just my surgery not caring about anything else. He was prepared to fight.

Complete Lung-sparing Bronchial Sleeve Resection Surgery

I can’t really explain it, but I just knew that I’d be ok in his hands. I heard the voice of another one of his patients that I shared a room with who told me, "He will save you Dara. He is THAT good!" So I went under with faith. When I woke I heard him say to me "We saved the lung. The cancer is gone and the incision is in a great place."

Yes, he did what no doctor said they could do. He cut out just the cancerous part of the bronchus doing a "bronchial sleeve resection" surgery and preserved my entire lung and my life. When I asked him how he did it he said it wasn’t even him! It was the man upstairs. He gave the credit to God. Can you believe that? I know miracles don’t always happen, but they do happen, and I am here to tell this story.

My voice now sounds better than ever. I no longer cough or wheeze, and I have both lungs. Being at Mount Sinai was such a difference from all the other hospitals and they also took great care of me. I never felt alone and Dr. Flores and several members of his team including, Dr. Lee, visited me every day during my time there. It was the worst thing I had to go through, but because my surgeon was Dr. Raja Flores, I found a reason to smile - he cared that much. So many physicians are afraid to be warm because they think it isn’t professional, but if they only understood what Dr. Flores does and that love heals, I guarantee that more patients would survive because they would BELIEVE that they will. I will forever call him my hero, my miracle, my angel. And I can’t wait to send him tickets to see me back on stage!

- Dara Joy Cohen

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