Gerald (Jerry) Zezas

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Empathy. A True Personal Case History


Some years back, I had the bad luck to have lost about ½ of my left pinky when it decided get into a debate with a table saw. I lost the debate. I was on the third floor of a house that I had purchased and was renovating.
When I realized what I had done, I wrapped what remained of my finger in a towel and drove myself to the hospital, where they stitched up the remaining stub and, some hours later, sent me on my way, loaded up on pain killers. My wife brought me home.

Over the subsequent days I mourned over my now disfigured pinky, feeling quite depressed over my stupidity at having lost it. (In actuality, someone whom I had hired to help me had removed the blade guard without telling me. I had not noticed it missing). For someone who had never so much as broken a bone or spent a night in a hospital, this really shook me.
At the time, I owned a small private airplane and used to perform charity flights for an organization called Angel Flight. We ferried sick people to hospitals for treatment. They were typically cancer patients who were being treated at hospitals which specialize in their particular kind of cancer. These hospitals could be quite a distance from where these people lived, so Angel Flight arranges with private pilots to fly them to the airport nearest the hospital, from where they would hire a cab, helping them to avoid what, in some cases, would be a 10-15 hour drive.

It was about two weeks after the aforementioned self-disfigurement that the pain in my hand had subsided to the point that I could safely fly without painkillers. I had Angel Flight put me back on flight status and was soon called to pick up a woman in Key West and fly her to Shands Medical Center in Gainsville, Florida. A distance of about 450 miles.
When I arrived at the terminal in Key West I was surprised to see that my passenger was to be a very pretty woman in the 35-year-old range. It was surprising since most of the patients whom I carried were much older, usually in their 70s and above. I introduced myself and helped her and her bags onto the plane and we took off.

About an hour into the flight, after we had exchanged some pleasantries, Michelle started telling me about the purpose of her visit to Shands (It was inappropriate for us to ask, but many of our passengers felt an obligation to let us know why they were taking part in this charitable program). She commenced telling me about a rare form of cancer with which she had been diagnosed about a year ago. She then started to describe to me which of her body parts had been removed and how many surgeries she had had. At first I didn’t believe her, it seemed so fantastic to me.

She had had more than 10 surgeries, the most recent having been less than a month before, nearly all of which having removed parts like one kidney, her gall bladder, her spleen, a part of her liver and other things that I don’t remember. In addition, she told me that she had three small children and that she had recently applied for welfare. The need for welfare arose when her husband told her that he was too young to be shackled by a sick wife and left! With her constant hospital visits, she had been fired from her job as a waitress and had no other way to support herself. I was beside myself with sorrow over this poor woman’s story when I realized that through this entire story, she had been smiling and jovial, never remotely betraying the slightest in self-pity or sadness of any kind. She joked about what an ass her husband was, but intimated that she guessed she could not blame him, since he was young and good-looking and needed to go on with his life!

My emotions were all over the map as I was listening to this sweet, gentle, kind woman, who had been through so much and was still going through it. I did not know if I should cry, offer her money or take her in and support her!

After she finished telling me all that was going on in her life and how she was coping with it, she happened to notice the big gauze bandage that still wrapped the remaining stub of a pinky on my left hand, making it virtually double its normal size. I was almost embarrassed to tell her about the ostensible high trauma that I had recently suffered and my depressed, “poor me” response to it. I felt like a schoolgirl at having made such a big deal about having lost such an unimportant part of my body while she was losing so much of hers. I was dismissive in my response and tried to downplay it as trivial.

In a two-hour flight with one of the happiest, most even-tempered and understanding people, (even in the face of insurmountable adversity), I had ever met, I learned more about compassion for others and being happy with our lot in life than I had in my entire life leading up to that moment. Having met this woman was a life-altering event for me.


Three months later I called Angel Flight to enquire as to what had happened to Michelle. They were not allowed to discuss anyone’s personal medical history, as I should have expected. Nevertheless, after talking to the woman volunteer on the phone and relating my experience with Michelle in an effort to explain my curiosity about her, the woman broke down and told me that Michelle had succumbed to her cancer and died about three weeks before. She was 34 years old. No information was available about what had happened to her children.



  1. Ask Cara says:

    It’s barely noticeable. I live in the South. I see so many missing fingers that I’ve become used to it.

  2. Bill Cadiz says:

    Right on. I think we’ve become, despite our puffed chests and growly voices, a bunch of self-absorbed whiners. Oh, you’re a Syrian or an Ethiopian walking to Sweden? Ha! that’s nothing! Let me tell you how my Cadillac lost a wiper and it started to rain! Instead of burning gas having fun in your Cirrus you put it to use helping sick people who had no way of getting medical help in far-off cities. You did a commendable thing and if I were close I’d shake your hand and thank you for your service. Hell, I’d pay for lunch!

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