Feb 20 2022

The Value of a Single Life

by at 4:23 pm under Uncategorized

Presidents’ Day Weekend will always have a special meaning for me. I remember the joyous agony, over a three-day period just one year ago, of saying goodbye to my father and then welcoming our youngest grandchild, who was about to embark on a perilous, life-threatening journey. All this in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which by then had claimed millions of lives around the globe, each of them equally precious.

My dad still lives in so many ways, animating our family as we remember the example of his life story and remarkable spirit. My favorite photo shows him near the end of his life, ravaged by age and myelodysplastic syndrome, sitting on a deck chair overlooking the ocean, his once athletic body wrapped in a blanket, the paper-thin skin on his right wrist bruised and partially covered by a large bandage. His face, tilted up, is bathed by the morning light and lit by a wide smile as he contemplates the rising sun, the reflection of which is seen on the sliding glass door in back of him. Even in this diminished state, his magnificent life force shines through. That photo is framed and hangs on an inside wall adjacent to that sliding door, over a small table that holds an ashtray and one of his lousy cigars. He would like that, I think.

A baby sits in a stroller

Clark is healthy, physically robust, emotionally connected, impossibly curious and constantly in motion.

I have documented Clark’s medical adventures over the past year or so, starting with a prenatal diagnosis of coarctation of the aorta, leading to corrective heart surgery when he was only one week old. We simply could not have asked for a better outcome as we celebrate his first birthday. He is healthy, physically robust, emotionally connected, impossibly curious and constantly in motion. His eyes sparkle with warmth, and like my dad he possesses an unstoppable life force and a smile that lights up his face and everything around him. One year after his tenuous arrival into this world, he has a future and a chance to strive for both goodness and greatness. He is fortunate to have had the incredible support of loving parents who put his heart in their hands, and an extraordinary team of surgeons whose daily grind creates miracles. Our gratitude is immeasurable.

Since that weekend, COVID-19 has claimed millions of additional lives around the world. Each life lost is an unspeakable tragedy. This has nothing to do with politics, ineffective nanny states, toxic individualism or any of the incessant messages the talking heads scream at us. How many new poems, new discoveries, new businesses or great performances have we buried and lost for all time? How many children have been deprived of a mother’s caress, a game of catch with a grandfather or the joy of welcoming a new child into the world? And now, the world faces the looming specter of a completely unnecessary but unquestionably devastating war in the Ukraine, which will accomplish nothing more than finishing the job that COVID-19 started there. Utter madness.

This is why I chose a life in medicine and medical research. This is why I am an oncologist. I cannot change the world, but I can strive to improve the human condition. With luck, I can alter the life trajectories of my patients, one at a time. In a very real way, I hold their hearts in my hands, and I am ennobled by that sacred responsibility. Through research, I hope to move the needle, ever so slightly, in the direction of effective new therapies for life-threatening diseases. I recently spoke at a Library of Congress symposium on cancer immunotherapy and was inspired by the remarkable progress that has been made by the field. Change is possible. Maybe, just maybe, I am making a bit of a difference. My father would approve, and with luck, my youngest grandchild will grow up in a better, healthier and more welcoming world.

Stay safe and be well.



The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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