Monday, November 22, 2004

Death of a Colleague

While attending a meeting recently I ran into a doctor from the university where I completed my medical oncology training. He filled me in about the professors we both knew, and then I inquired as to how an old pal from the fellowship years was doing - pretty routine chit-chat up to this point. The reply I got stopped me in mid-breath: "He died two years ago."

When an announcement like this touches the ears it instantly short-circuits the brain. For a brief moment one cannot make any sense of the information received. I understood what the phrase meant, yet was simultaneously puzzled, because it was inconceivable that my friend was dead. It cannot be true, I thought. Yet in some remote gyrus where maturity resides the shock was already processed, and waves of pain familiar to all who have received bad news began to vibrate through me. I was crushed by this news, and obviously wanted the details of his death.

I was told that my colleague, who had trained in medical oncology with me, had died of cancer after battling it for almost two years. My old friend, who had devoted his life to treating people with cancer, had succumbed to cancer. The irony in his story is almost unbearable - a doctor cut down in the prime of his career by same enemy he was sworn to destroy.

For the rest of the day I found myself unable to concentrate, as thoughts of my friend swept through my head. I was ashamed that I had not kept in touch with him over the years - he died two years ago, yet I never knew until today! I regretted not being able to speak to his wife, to comfort him in his time of need, to pray for him, to mourn him. As I reflected I kept thinking how unfair this death was - this man, a servant of those living with cancer, surely was worth keeping alive! Why was he taken so early in his life?

My ruminations then turned trite, as I declared "Why him and not me?" We were both the same age, and if oncologists can be stricken with a senseless death from cancer at any time, why was he chosen? A profound sense of awe came over me, a fleeting impression of the power and command death has over our emotions.

I was reminded that there is no easy way to endure the sorrow that comes with what is commonly called the "vicissitudes of life". It is certainly beyond my understanding. What does one do with this tragedy? How does one honor the memory of a colleague without descending into bathos?

I didn't brood on this question for long, for the answer to me was simple: go to work, and keep smiling. Do your duty, whatever it may be - and be glad that you awakened this morning in good health. Fulfill your mission in life - and delight in the wonder of it all. Remember your partner by doing his work, caring for patients as he would have continued to do, had he lived. Above all, spread a smile or two as you go about your day - it can lighten the load of those who suffer, your burden included!

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