Special Segment: Roger Ebert's New Normal

March 23, 2009 5:06:50 PM PDT
The past three years have been filled with heartache and hope for Roger Ebert as he has battled cancer. All along, Ebert has said he hopes to be able to speak again someday, but he's not saying that anymore.

VIDEO: Watch more of Kevin Roy's interview with Roger Ebert
VIDEO: Watch Kevin Roy's full interview with Chaz, Roger's wife

Roger Ebert's new normal is a lot like the old Roger Ebert, and that's the point he wants to make. He told ABC7 Chicago that it's important to him that people understand he's still the same Roger Ebert, with the same wit and personality, even if he can't speak.

Ebert has used a computer generated voice. For the first time, he says he's had a change of mind and heart.

"No more surgery. They did the best they could to restore those abilities, and the result was I almost died three times. I've had enough. Quit while you're ahead," the film critic said.

Ebert's new normal means there will be no more surgeries to try to restore his voice. That famous voice was silenced three years ago because of cancer that spread to his lower jaw.

Three times, surgeons have tried to rebuild Ebert's right mandible, the lower jaw, with the hope of bringing back his ability to speak. And three times, Ebert nearly died from massive bleeding.

"We didn't even know if he was going to make it through the night," Ebert's wife Chaz said.

When ABC7's Kevin Roy sat down with Roger and Chaz in November 2007, they were optimistic that doctors would succeed with the next surgery.

"I hope to regain the power to speak," Ebert said during that interview.

Chaz says, in January 2008, doctors came ever so close. Roger's rebuilt lower jaw looked better than it had in years.

"I gave him a mirror to look at. I remember the look of astonishment on his face, seeing everything back together again," she said.

But it wasn't to be. Neutron beam radiation to knock out his cancer had also scarred blood vessels in his neck. Days later, doctors had no choice but to remove all of their work.

Then, as Roger Ebert was recovering in Florida, gaining strength to attend his annual film festival in Champaign, Ill. another setback.

"My shoe caught on the rug, and when I fell I, could feel the bone breaking, and I thought, 'Oh no, no, no, no, no."

Roger broke his hip. It meant another surgery and coming back to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for the fourth time in three years.

"It's a victory to walk along these corridors when I clearly remember four times here when I had to learn again to do that," Roger Ebert said.

Ebert had to learn how to walk, to climb stairs and function at home in a special apartment at the rehab institute.

Nearly four weeks of intensive therapy made him strong enough to go back to work. It wasn't long before Roger was writing again, and soon it was pouring out of him, five to six columns a week.

And although his computer generated voice does not sound like his old voice, he says he is functioning with it very well.

"I hope people know that behind these problems, I am still absolutely the same guy. My mind is the same, and my mind is me," he said.

Now, Ebert says his mind is made up; there will be no more surgery. Chaz, however, isn't as sure.

"I'm not going to lie. I want him to have another surgery, but I want it to be successful. And that is my hope, that one day he'll be able to do that," she said.

Ebert says if that never happens, if this is as good as it gets, all the agony, pain and frustration have been worth it.

"My wife and my work are the two great joys I have not lost," he said.

In a recent email, Chaz Ebert told Kevin Roy that doctors would like to attempt another reconstruction surgery for Roger Ebert and are looking at new advances in medicine. But, for now, she says Roger is happy with life as is and doesn't want another surgery.

And he remains cancer free.

In a follow-up story airing Monday at 4 p.m., learn what motivated Roger to endure rehab four times and why his doctors and therapists say he was an inspiration to them.