Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Old Bastard

His name was John. Granted, I never called him that. I always called him "doctor."

Every residency program has one on staff. An old, semi-retired physician who's rumored to have trained under Osler or Charcot. Brusque, rude, and brilliant.

John was all of that. Came to work in a suit and tie every day. He always sat in the same seat in every meeting and lecture. One of the few docs old enough to have literally seen every neurological disease. He'd started in the era where top-of-the-line brain imaging was the pneumoencephalogram and ventriculogram. The number on his American Academy of Neurology certificate was 2 digits long.

We were terrified of him. He wasn't mean, but intimidating none the less. If you were answering a question, you knew you were on the wrong track if you heard him starting to chuckle softly in the back of the room, and when he took his unlit pipe out of his pocket and began puffing on it... you'd really screwed up.

At the same time, you'd go to him for help. Due to his long experience he could explain things sometimes no one else could. Occasionally you'd get invited into his office (it had been his for over 30 years) which reeked of tobacco. The hospital was no-smoking everywhere, but he didn't care. He smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, and a pipe on top of that. The little room was packed with bookcases, creaking under the weight of neurological tomes going back to the 1930's. Although it was a chaotic mess to everyone else, John would always go to a specific spot in the room, pull out and blow the dust off a book, and open it to exactly where the answer was.

John was a widower, and his only son and he had a tenuous relationship at best. He was a workaholic, and the neurology department was his life. He'd come in on weekend mornings to read the paper and have his pipe and coffee in his office. For dinner each night he dined alone at the same table in the same Michelin 3 star restaurant. Only once did I know him to have a dinner companion, when an old acquaintance of his was in town: Sir Roger Bannister, the world's fastest neurologist.

Shortly after I completed residency, John was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. He didn't even bother with treatment. Nor did he miss a day of work. Once he told others about it, it was no longer to be discussed. No one was to bring it up with him. He and his pipe continued to teach and lecture and glare at us until he no longer could. I, and many others, including his son, visited him in his last days.

His office was still locked and untouched when I left the area a few months later. No one dared go in or move his books or pictures. They were, for better or worse, all that was left of him.

A friend of mine from the department and I were talking about John's solitary life, with nothing but his work left. He commented that "it's a lesson in how not to live."

But... John never really died.

He's at my office every day, and follows me to the hospital. When writing a note I'll sometimes hear his chuckle and realize I'm not thinking the patient through correctly. He sits across my desk from me and argues about cases. When doing an EMG/NCV he'll chew me out if I do the wrong muscle, or tell me to do it over if it didn't sound right. If I forgot to check something on exam he'll make me go back and do it over.

There are many lessons to be drawn from John, both good and bad. I'll try to learn from all of them.


SMOD said...

That's a beautiful tribute. You captured the essence of the man, as I knew him. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

my God, that's beautiful. Dude is smiling down on you every day. It's amazing how much impact the "characters" in our lives can have.

Packer said...

I think he wore the badge of professionalism, not restricted to Medicine only. Academia is famous for them. Computer Science more so, recalling anecdotes of computer nerds who had not eaten or slept for 3 days or showered for a week as they tackled a problem. They are the geniuses of their fields.

Not that I even remotely fall into that category, I often think of how my good wife and my children have saved me from myself, to the point that I really no longer have the pangs of guilt that would accompany me if I did not find myself in my office at 6 AM on Saturday. Everyone has one , the secret is not becoming one but always trying to be like one.

Jono said...

You were and are lucky to have him in your life.

Kai said...

A beautiful tribute. You were certainly lucky to have known him.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

This was beautiful. I know someone just like that. You brought me to tears.

Anonymous said...

The person who said "it's a lesson on how not to live." missed the point of who this man was. I thank God every day for people like him.

Anonymous said...

People like that are rare gems. Treasure the memory.

Cathie from Canada said...

Wonderful tribute. I had a teacher as I recall -- not such a curmudgeon, but he influenced me throughout my life.
I wonder if you might be able to track down the son and tell him how much his father has meant to you over the years? It would be very meaningful to them, I'm sure. I have tried to track down my teacher's family, just to tell them how important he was to me.

Aaron said...

It's really dusty in my office today, and this is something I needed to read.

I found out the a couple days ago that an old college friend of mine passed away rather suddenly and unexpectedly last year, leaving behind a wife and very little else.

But he's the guy who got me into JRPGs in college, fed my anime addiction, and helped me get through the Sophomore C.S. major's killer semester of COBOL and C programming classes.

Every time I write a line of test code, or boot up a new game for review, Kris is part of the reason why.

Thank you for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

Very good!

Oldfoolrn said...

There is a John in most everyone's life. Mine is my high school Physics teacher and he is closing in on 90. Thanks so much for the inspiration to send off an email telling my old mentor (we didn't call them mentors back in the day, but it fits) what he meant to me.

Mage said...

The art world has a teacher and artist just like that. He doesn't like women. Those of us who were some of his first students, admire his panache. We still talk about him tho.

Tom said...

Love it. I have to wonder what happened to all his books. I hope they went to someone who appreciated them, and from whom they came.

Moose said...

It never fails to amaze me how many people confuse "alone" with "lonely."

Getting to live your life as you want, making your own decisions on when to spend time with others and when to have the quiet solitude of being alone, continuing to enrich the lives of others -- none of that is a "lonely" life.

A life alone can still be full and enjoyed.

Anonymous said...

One of the proudest moments of my career was actually what an ex-student did.
One day together we saved a life (they weren't a student anymore, but I was the one steering). I got rapped on the knuckles for it, because protocols, and congratulated for the incredible outcome. It was a career high point.

But I hit an even higher high when I heard that just a few months later, when this ex-student found themselves with a similar patient, in even more difficult circumstances, was able to achieve the same outcome. That was the proudest moment, that my teaching had been taken on board, and that teaching led to a life being saved.

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