Two Lovely Pieces

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

OCTOBER 27, 2017

This is the last Friday in October. It, for me, is the end of a very long week and an even longer month. My husband has mostly taught me not to complain or to become overwhelmed by a too full calendar. "Look at it one day at a time, not the whole week, and certainly not the whole month." he says. I am mostly able to do that, but this month's schedule tested me. I was away from home for 10 nights, most of them because of work travel. And the work travel all included giving talks. Once I am there (wherever there is), I enjoy it, but the travel part and the packing part and the thinking about it part are exhausting.

To celebrate making it through, I am sharing two lovely things to read at your leisure. The first is from The New York Times:

Oliver Sacks, a Composer and His Last Work


I took many pictures of Oliver Sacks during our life together — and not just because I adored him. He was an irresistible subject for a photographer, with his bushy beard, sparkling bespectacled eyes, expressive hands, gap-toothed smile and the athletic build of someone who could easily swim long distances, even into his 80s.

The last picture I took of him, however, captures something quite different. His eyes do not meet mine, his head rests on a propped hand, and he is completely absorbed in a Bach piece he’d been learning to play.

I made a print and showed it to him a couple of days later. He didn’t find it especially flattering, but he liked it. It reminded him of the engraving of an elderly Beethoven in the “Oxford Companion to Music” from 1938. He knew that book practically by heart — a favorite aunt had given it to him as a boy — and he could describe the illustration and its caption with perfect recall: Beethoven’s room is “untidy,” he told me, “and there sits the aged composer, ‘very ill, but indomitable.’ ”

I nodded, his words echoing in my head: very ill, but indomitable — yes.

By that time, mid-August of 2015, Oliver knew he was going to die, probably soon, from the metastatic cancer that had been diagnosed seven months earlier

Read more:

And from the same source:

The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart


Every medical case, to paraphrase the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, is lived twice: once in the wards and once in memory. Some of what follows is still intensely vivid, as if it were shot in high-def video. Other parts are blurry — in part because I must have subconsciously deleted or altered the memories. I was 33 then and a senior resident at a hospital in Boston. I had been assigned to the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized.

In mid-September — it had been a moody, rain-drenched month, as I recall — I admitted a 52-year-old man to the unit. I’ll call him by the first letter of his given name, M. As medical interns, we were forewarned by the senior residents not to identify too closely with patients. “A weeping doctor is a useless doctor,” a senior once told me. Or: “You cannot do an eye exam if your own eyes are clouded.” But M.’s case made it particularly hard. He was a doctor and a scientist — an M.D., a Ph.D., like me. He must have been about 15 years ahead of me in his schooling; I could imagine him returning to my class in med school to teach us.

“Patient-Doctor,” in which students are taught how to deal with real-life patients. He’d trained as a medical resident and then as a fellow in cardiology at another hospital across town. He was now an assistant professor — it seemed like such a victory to have that title — and ran a small laboratory. I knew a student who once worked with him. Six degrees of separation? There was barely one.

Earlier that year, in March or April, M. became short of breath in the middle of his run. (Was his running route the same as mine? Across the Longfellow Bridge at Mass General, looping around the river and then back again by Storrow Drive?) His legs turned cold and blue. He had dizzy spells and lost words in midsentence. He saw a cardiologist — presumably one of his own colleagues — who diagnosed heart failure. A series of scans must have revealed a sluggish heart. In place of the regular, intentional motion — jellyfish pulsing in a tank — there was an eerie wobbliness, just jelly. A biopsy was performed, and the diagnosis was amyloidosis, a mysterious condition in which misfolded proteins begin to be deposited in the organs of the body. Sometimes the proteins come from cancer cells; sometimes from poorly understood sources. The deposits choke the organs: heart, liver, blood vessels, kidneys. “And then, bit by bit by bit, I was all pro-te-in,” he said dryly, paraphrasing the Tin Man in Oz. We laughed.

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