Who is the best doctor? Is it the one who cures the most diseases? Or perhaps the one who typically makes the right diagnosis? How about the one who is the most compassionate and honest? Maybe, the best doctor is the one who strives to attain all of these attributes, while also having the humility to recognize that he can be a master of none. And “Dr. C”, as he was affectionately known by his colleagues and patients, in my estimation, embodied that ideal.
Dr. C was a guy who really looked forward to coming to work everyday, but I think he also set the bar very high for himself. His work ethic was tireless, still serving on the front lines of the local emergency room well into his 70s. Moreover, he worked at our mental health center until the day that the pain in his legs became too unbearable to walk, though he only left his duties after being inveigled (He was much too stubborn to be ordered to do anything.) by concerned coworkers to be taken to the hospital. And that’s when he began his hard work as a patient… more about that later. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. His son shared with me just the other day that his dad was still reading journal articles and taking tests for continuing medical education credits, even while in the advanced stages of cancer.
I don’t know if he really expected to return to work again; but in spirit, he was a physician until the end. Retirement was never an option. For one, he liked the work too much to quit. For Dr. C, some days may have been more challenging than others, but they were never a drudgery. I never heard him say, “Thank God, it’s Friday!” He liked playing the “detective” role of medicine, always taking a thorough history and performing a careful examination, searching for clues that would lead him to the correct diagnosis.
Regarding his bedside manner, he was very sociable, always enjoyed visiting with his patients, who came from all walks, and being genuinely interested in their life stories. He had an infectious charm, especially noticed by the opposite sex. Every time we had lunch together at the hospital, no fewer than 2 or 3 women at a time would be stopped in their tracks, clearly overjoyed at the mere sight of Dr. C, and often embrace him with unsolicited, breath-halting hugs.
Dr. C was truly a Renaissance man. As hard as he worked, he also loved to read, especially history and biographies, reveled in Latin music and Rumba dancing, studied and discussed politics, and appreciated nature. He was also a darn fine gardener, especially of tomatoes. He liked photographing birds and other wildlife. One shot that I admired in particular was of a couple of pink flamingos that he captured at just the right moment, with the pair poised in a few inches of water, curving their necks in a courtship display. He was probably a closet romantic, but would never have admitted it. But beyond all that, he was born to be a doctor. He had a natural Hippocratic character and didn’t require being bound by the oath to practice it. He truly respected his patients whom he treated with the utmost concern, always putting their needs above his own. He was indeed a humanist, seeing his patients first as fellow human beings and not as “cases”. He thought of each patient as important as the others, and treated them all with the fullest extent of his knowledge and time in the hope of relieving whatever pained them.
It’s a common saying that doctors make the worst patients, and though a generally accurate statement, nothing could be further from the truth in Dr. C's case. I never heard him complain through the endless series of medical setbacks that began last May. In my own moment of frustration once, during one of our conversations, I likened his travails to the Burden of Sisyphus, unfairly condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down to the bottom every time he reached the pinnacle. But his attitude was far too positive and determined to believe that or to otherwise wallow in self-pity. He simply acknowledged the hard reality of his situation which allowed for ready acceptance and action. He would simply say, ”It’s tough, but you have to keep going.”
From what fountain did he draw for his source of strength? Well, as someone who witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Bataan Death March in his formative years, he obviously identified with a life ethic that if you fell or couldn’t keep up, you probably wouldn’t make it. And while fear can be a powerful motivator, people influenced solely by this emotion most often lead lives of isolation, angst, and ultimately “quiet desperation, going to the grave with the song still in them”, as Thoreau reminds us. That was definitely not Dr. C! Rather, such individuals with his level of sustained goodness and devotion to his fellow man, are instilled to the core with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
In closing, I'd like to paraphrase a line from the BBC television series, Doctor Who... "We're all stories in the end." Like Dr. C, we should aspire to "just make it a good one."
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