A medical miracle tells a story of trauma and survival

by Len Lear
Posted 2/2/23

Jim Zervanos was clearly living a charmed life a decade ago. But cancer is a devilish intruder and doesn't care how perfect your life is.

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A medical miracle tells a story of trauma and survival


Jim Zervanos was clearly living a charmed life a decade ago. At age 41, he had movie star looks, had been an academic all-American baseball player at Bucknell University who was named Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year, loved his job teaching high school English, had a loving wife and one-year-old son and was published in literary journals, magazines and anthologies.

But cancer is a devilish intruder and doesn't care how perfect your life is. One day, seemingly without warning, Zervanos wound up in an emergency room, where he lay for days in limbo, being strangled from the inside, while a team of medical specialists could not agree on a diagnosis or treatment protocol, and Zervanos's future looked dismal.

But Zervanos, author of “That Time I Got Cancer: A Love Story,” will tell his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 7:30 a.m., to the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club at the Center on the Hill in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave.

“Through his extraordinarily written and heartfelt expression, Jim Zervanos speaks for people who have been through this type of trauma … and need to share in the expression of what they've been through,” said Dr. Stephen J. Schuster, director of the lymphoma program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and one of the physicians who treated Zervanos. “Truly, this book will help patients, and every medical student in the country should read it.”

Zervanos' case, which stumped doctors at first, is so unusual that he has been asked to put on slide show presentations for residents and other doctors at the University of Pennsylvania and Lancaster General Hospital. He was also the keynote speaker at a Temple University Hospital review conference for 500 physicians. (Zervanos' father, Dr. Nikitas Zervanos, was a family medicine specialist and one of the founders of the residency program at Lancaster General Hospital.)

After much discussion among Zervanos' team of doctors at Penn, Dr. Alberto Pochettino, a heart and lung transplant surgeon, decided to take out the superior vena cava (a major vein that carries blood from the upper body to the heart) and replace it with a vein graft he would create. “He had done something similar twice before,” Zervanos said last week. “It turned out to be a malignant tumor, though. When he got in there, he said it was even more complicated than he expected. He had to cut into two veins and create a Y. He attached it all successfully. He still thought it was benign but later said it was lymphoma. The head doctor said he never saw anything like it in his 40 years in medicine.

“Dr. Schuster said they only find lymphoma in veins in autopsy, not in living patients. He said he could not believe it was lymphoma, but that's what the pathology said. 'We missed it,' he said. The doctors took great care of me. I love them. Penn is great. I had chemo for three months but was spared radiation. They did not know how the vein would respond to radiation. The final diagnosis was diffuse large cell lymphoma, but I've never had a relapse.”

Zervanos still has symptoms. He lives with some discomfort, but he is able to run five or six miles three or four times a week. If he bends over to tie his shoes, however, blood rushes to his head. “The doctors said I am the poster boy for restraint in medicine,” he said. “The doctors refused to put in a stent, even though there was pressure to do it. That has a lot to do with my survival.”

A Lancaster native, Zervanos majored in English and art at Bucknell, where he also earned a master's degree in English. His maternal grandfather, Jimmy Fournaris, came to the U.S. from Greece in the 1920s and opened a restaurant in Lancaster, the Stockyard Inn, which was run by family members for 70 years but is now closed.

After Bucknell, Zervanos went to Temple Law School but dropped out after three semesters when he decided to become a full-time writer and teacher. He then completed the Narrative Medicine Workshop at Columbia University and graduated from an MFA program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. For the past 28 years, he has taught English at Penncrest High School near Media.

Zervanos wrote two books before “Cancer,” which is published by Koehler Books. The first novel, “American Gyro,” is unpublished so far. His novel, “Love Park,” was well reviewed critically and has been called “a Greek-American 'The Graduate.'” A fourth book, “Your Story Starts Here; a Year on the Brink with Generation Z,” a nonfiction work in diary form, will come out in March 2024, from Vine Leaves Press in Virginia.

Zervanos is also a very talented painter. “I will do a lot more painting when I retire from teaching,” he said. His wife, Vana, is an associate dean of the business school at St. Joseph's University. They have two sons, and Zervanos is also the coach of two Little League teams.

For more information, visit jimzervanos.com. For more details about the Feb.15 talk, visit chestnuthillrotary.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com