Saturday, 14 February 2015

Spotlight + Author Q&A: Gone in a Heartbeat by Neil Spector, M.D.

by Neil Spector, M.D.
Published by Triton Press, February 14, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-936946-42-6
$14.95 Ÿ 256 pages Ÿ Memoir Ÿ Trade Paperback 

Dr. Neil Spector, one of the nation’s top oncologists, led a charmed life. He was educated at prestigious universities, trained at top medical centers, and had married the woman of his dreams. It seemed too perfect. And it was.

In 1994, it all came crashing down. He and his wife lost two unborn children. And a mysterious illness brought him to the brink of death. In his compelling memoir, Gone in a Heartbeat, Dr. Spector describes in great detail how he was misdiagnosed and, despite being a medical insider, was often discounted as having stress-related problems by his fellow physicians.

As he recounts his own personalized approach to medicine and physician/patient relationships, Dr. Spector encourages readers to never surrender their power to a third party. He tells of courageous patients who served as role models, he concedes that doctors do a disservice to patients when “we treat them like statistics,” and he advocates for educated patients who can make informed decisions collaboratively and not simply follow instructions.

In Dr. Spector’s words: “To recognize that we are in control of our own bodies and destinies can be a powerful step toward true healing.”

Readers of Gone in a Heartbeat will never view the medical profession the same again.


New Book by Leading Oncologist Reveals His Own Shocking Misdiagnosis, Miracle Heart Transplant, and Insider Advice for Medical Protection

Dr. Neil Spector is a leading oncologist and researcher at Duke University Medical Center—and he’s a survivor of a misdiagnosed, nearly fatal illness and a miraculous heart transplant. Now he uncovers the true story of his shocking medical saga from a physician-scientist’s and insider’s perspective, revealing how he beat the odds and survived to help others in his new book, Gone in a Heartbeat (Triton Press, $14.95, trade paperback, February 14 2015).

Dr. Spector was in peak physical condition when he began experiencing bizarre symptoms, including cardiac arrhythmias, joint pain, a period of brain fog (mental cloudiness), and more. His doctors attributed it to stress, but Spector (a physician-scientist himself) suspected he had a serious underlying medical condition, possibly Lyme disease, and fought within the medical system to find the cause—but years of inconclusive results, lack of a diagnosis and no treatment resulted in irreparable heart damage.

After living 11 years with only 10% heart function, a series of life-threatening complications resulted in a terrifying free fall into florid heart failure, and a moment of emotional crisis where Spector, a loving husband and father, considered taking his own life. A former pillar of health, he was suddenly told he had 72 hours to live without a heart transplant.

He survived thanks to the love and support from his family, his unwavering faith and belief in miracles, and an emergency transplant. As a physician who prides himself on delivering “compassionate care” to his patients, he wants to ensure others stay protected as well.

“In a medical system that is often highly impersonalized, this story underscores the importance of advocating for oneself,” Spector said. “As I tell people, if this could happen to me, a well-trained physician-scientist, imagine what might happen to you!”

“If you feel that you are not getting proper care, or your doctor just isn’t listening to you, advocate for yourself,” Spector added. “Listen to your instincts. Never let someone else take away the power that each of us has. If you do, you could easily end up dead.”

Harrowing and heartfelt, Gone in a Heartbeat is a gripping medical saga, an inspirational journey, and a cautionary tale from a medical insider’s perspective. Readers will never view the medical profession the same again.


Neil Spector is the co-director of the developmental therapeutics program at the Duke Cancer Institute, Duke University Medical Center. He is a Komen Scholar (one of 50 global leaders in breast cancer research) and a Sandra P. Coates Associate Professor in Breast Cancer Research.

He has been published in over 60 publications and journals, including the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Oncogene, Cancer Research, and The Journal of Clinical Oncology.

He has won multiple awards, including the Wayne Rundles Award (excellence in cancer research, Duke University Medical Center), the Wendell Rosse Excellence in Teaching Award (awarded to the best faculty mentor as voted by the Duke medical oncology fellows), and the Claudia Adams Barr Award in Cancer Research (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School).

He resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife, daughter, and two dogs, where he enjoys running, playing tennis, traveling, and is an avid reader of books related to the mind-body connection.


1.   As a physician and a patient, are you angry that you were misdiagnosed for so many years? No. Dwelling on what might have been is not productive and is a waste of precious energy. Moreover, had it not been for my illness, I would not be where I am today, having led the development of two cancer drugs, one approved for pediatric leukemia and the other breast cancer. My life changed for the better in so many different ways. 

2.      You survived your medical ordeal. What helped you the most? First, I would not have survived without the undying love and support from my wife; she literally saved my life on many occasions. Second, I kept a positive attitude, giving thanks for what I had, and not what I had lost due to illness. I also didn’t allow my medical condition to define who I was. And third, I understood that despite the statistics that physicians love to quote, we (the medical profession) know very little about what it takes for the body to heal, which is often more than prescribing medications and devices. I realized that I had control over a large part of my healing.

3.      If you could revisit these experiences, would you do anything differently? Yes, I would have been more vigilant regarding possible signs of Lyme disease when I first began to experience symptoms. Did I miss a rash that I might have attributed to something else? Should I have aggressively pursued the explanation for an abnormal, non-specific laboratory test early on in the course of my illness? It could have led to an earlier diagnosis of Lyme disease when treatment might have prevented permanent heart damage.

4.      What do you feel you’ve learned on this medical journey? (1) You (or a loved one) need to advocate for yourself when it comes to your health. (2) Never give your power to someone else; you know your body better than any physician regardless of where they received their M.D. (3) Miracles can happen and they do all the time. (4) There are more unknowns when it comes to the human body/health/disease than there are knowns. If your physicians says, “This never happens,” find a new physician since that statement implies they know everything there is to know about the human body. (5) Medicine is an art, not an exact science. Outstanding physicians listen to their patients, examine them, and use technologies to support/confirm a diagnosis.

5.      Do you feel differently with a new heart than you did with your old one? From a physical standpoint it is a sea change, particularly comparing my old heart after it was affected by Lyme disease. Physically, I am able to do things that I have not been able to do for over 20 years. One glaring difference is my new found affinity for television shows on HGTV. Before the transplant, I am not sure I even knew what HGTV was.  Now, I’ll pass on watching Duke-UNC basketball games to watch a House Hunters International episode instead. Now that says something. In addition, there is a song that inexplicably elicits an emotional response that didn’t occur prior to the transplant. I have no good explanation for the sudden love of HGTV and emotional response to a song.

6.      What advice would you offer readers to help protect and advocate for themselves in medical situations? Become an informed, active participant in your care. That doesn’t mean you constantly have to second guess your health care providers; it means that you shouldn’t be a passive observer since you know your body and how you are feeling better than a stranger (doctor).

7.      How would you like to see the medical profession change? Don’t forget the basics— taking a thorough history, which means listening to patients, and do a complete physical examination. Medicine, in my opinion, will always be an art and not an exact science. Having said that, we (physicians) would be foolish not to utilize the latest advances in technologies to help deliver top-notch care. However, personalized care means just that, knowing your patient as a unique individual and not a diagnostic code. Along the same lines, physicians need to be taught to problem solve and think out of the box, rather than simply relying on automated tests, which they often don’t understand.

8.      Can the medical profession become more personalized and still be accurate and efficient? If by personalized you mean treating the patient as a unique individual and not according to an algorithm, the answer is yes. We should utilize the latest technological advances to help guide patient care. That does not however mean we should replace listening to our patients, and performing a thorough physical examination with computerized readouts.

9.      What is the number one thing you hope readers take away from your book? Trust your instincts. If your instincts tell you that what you are hearing from your doctor doesn’t seem right then continue to seek for answers. Although you may not be able to describe your symptoms in medical jargon, don’t settle if what you are being told doesn’t seem right. That doesn’t mean being in denial, but honoring the fact that you know your body better than any physician ever will. Become an active rather than passive participant in the most important aspect of your life- your health.

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