Sunday, January 18, 2015

Farewell to a Friend

Joel I. Bernstein, MD
1953 - 2014

"The writer must write what he has to say. Not speak it."

~ Ernest Hemingway

It was midsummer when I learned that Dr. Joel Bernstein was ill with a deadly cancer. The cruel and tragic irony of this oncological genius, who had saved literally thousands of lives, falling prey to the dreadful disease he had applied his skills to defeat for so many others, was almost physically painful. Joel was dear to me, for one of the lives he saved was my husband's.

In 1994, Dr. Bernstein's aggressive and creative treatment of Pete's almost fatally advanced cancer was a life-and-death gamble, but we had nothing to lose by trusting him. The year and many following were hard. Pete almost died more than once, from both chemotherapy and complications after surgery. But Joel was with us every step of the way, and each time I spoke with him, I remember feeling confident that Joel would bring Pete through the ordeal. He did exactly that; our family had an extra dozen years with Pete because Joel chose to be fearless in attacking the cancer.

In 2006, when Pete was extremely ill again but various referral physicians seemed unable to figure out the problem, Joel was the one doctor who told us the truth. Weary of the endless rounds of specialists, tests, and inconclusive results, we circled back with Joel. With his characteristic calm, gentleness, and compassion, he transitioned from his doctor role to that of our dear friend as he helped us face and deal with the end of Pete's life. Joel made the most terrible thing that had ever happened to us bearable, and he ensured Pete a death of peace and dignity. For that, I will always owe him what I call a soul debt--one that can never be repaid.

Joel has been heavy on my heart in the past six months. After Pete's death, when my longtime physician had moved out of town, I asked Joel to be my doctor; it was his "honor," he replied. So I became Joel's healthy patient, the one who saw him only for a sore throat every couple of years. My last office visit was in September 2012. I thought of making an appointment to see him after I heard of his illness, but I didn't want to take his precious time. I knew that so many people would need him much more than I during his remaining days in practice. But he stayed in my thoughts and prayers.

On Christmas Day, Joel died of his cancer. This week I attended a memorial service for him at the hospital. From the many speakers, I learned that among Joel's numerous interests were opera and gardening, that he was an excellent cellist, and that he had an IQ of 170. The last item didn't surprise me, nor did the fact that Joel never mentioned it to anyone. But then, his intellectual brilliance was obvious.

Photo by Beth Mallon
I certainly had known that Joel loved dogs; that's all he and Pete ever seemed to discuss at checkup appointments--their black Labrador Retrievers. One examining room in his office suite looked like it belonged to a veterinarian. It had statues, placards, and pictures of black labs, including the huge framed wall photo of him with his dog giving him a nuzzle. I remember Pete telling me about Joel's old dog, Duke, being put down, and when Joel got his next dog, Tommy. (I also remember asking Pete, "Do you two ever discuss your blood work?") Joel's beloved 11-year-old Tommy was at the memorial event with his new owner, the dog sitter who had always cared for him when Joel traveled (and who took the wonderful photo of Joel and his pet). She told me that Joel had called her very soon after his diagnosis to ask if, after his death, she would take care of Tommy.

Poor Tommy looked lonely at the reception afterwards, casting searching eyes around the crowd as if looking for Joel to appear. I can relate to that. It's difficult to believe that someone who did so much good for so many people, who could make his patients laugh at cancer even as he battled it to the last cell on their behalf, is gone. The heartache among his friends, colleagues, and patients--many of whom fill all three roles--is palpable. I'm hoping that writing this goodbye will help me to move past my own lingering sadness.

Yes, I will find another doctor. But there will never be another Joel Bernstein. Rest in peace, dear friend. How well you have earned it.