By Jocelyn Selim
Public radio host and folklorist Nick Spitzer finds the Creole in cancer treatment
By Jocelyn Selim
Billings talks about his patient fondly. “Nick is a remarkable guy. Cancer patients can be totally across the board in how they deal with their situation—some are completely unemotional and detach,” says Billings. “Nick would be either very, very up or very, very down.”
Spitzer soon started taking Billing’s advice and playing for all the marbles, adopting a multipronged healing strategy that, in some ways, paralleled his eclectic mixing of music—melding traditional care, complementary therapy and the offbeat into a sort of medical gumbo.
“I’m more of a believer in belief than a believer in one belief—that’s the folklorist in me, meditating, receiving all spiritual attention and affection from all kinds of places,” says Spitzer, recalling his attitude as he faced treatment at Baton Rouge Hospital. “Visualization was really big back in the ’80s, so I would visualize just breathing in and out and breathing out the cancer. The Catholic priest would come by, and I’d be, I’m more cat than Catholic but sure … do whatever you want to do. Rabbi, I’m not really Jewish, but let’s talk. The blues guys would sing late at night, the faith healers would come around—the hospital was full of vernacular folk medicine and I was digging in it, and it was making me feel better and giving me a feeling of hope.”
“Nick has an energy that draws people to him,” says Billings. “It seemed like he had the whole city of Baton Rouge as his support group.”
Spitzer eventually had an epiphany. “I came to this final realization: Dying is not the worst thing that could happen to me,” he says. “The worst thing that could happen to me is losing my touch with all these great people who help me and love me.” Right after that realization, says Spitzer, his medical condition started to turn around.
About seven weeks after his diagnosis, the tumor shriveled. A few months later, after a second surgery and a round of radiation treatments to keep the cancer away, tests found no sign of it.
Spitzer describes his final exit from the hospital like a scene from the end of a Charles Dickens novel. “Every protagonist and antagonist is present. Everybody’s there, everybody’s laughing. I’m crying,” says Spitzer. Just as he was leaving, an older black female orderly stopped him and told him that she knew about all the cultural work he did. “She said that schools were still segregated when she was growing up so she learned to read on the only two books in the house, the Bible and Gumbo Ya-Ya, which is this … collection of old Louisiana folk stories,” says Spitzer. “She looks at me and says, ‘You’re more Gumbo Ya-Ya than Bible. Your spirit’s with Gumbo Ya-Ya. You get back to that.’ ”