I've been fortunate enough to have excellent health, despite poor diet and lack of exercise. I've never really been confronted by my own mortality. In my business, however, I am surrounded by others' tragedies.
I did my training in a large city that attracts lots of young people from my home town. They tend to form an informal network there, and people keep loosely in touch.
So, I wasn't surprised when a doctor I knew called me.
"Do you remember K.?" he asked.
"Sure, why?" I responded cautiously.
"She's in the hospital with a big liver tumor. You might want to go see her."
K. was always a vivacious girl (now a woman of 30). She was known for her smile. I was happy to be able to see her again after so many years, but not under these circumstances.
I walked into her hospital room. Her parents were there, and she was lying in her bed, recovering from a massive surgery. We chatted a bit, caught up on mutual friends, but she was pretty doped up and I let her rest. I spoke with her folks, let them know that I pretty much lived in the hospital, so if there was anything they needed, etc.
The prognosis for a tumor like hers is horrible, and she knew it. But, given her age and her attitude, she was not going to let her story end there.
She researched the latest treatments, went to specialty centers, enrolled in experimental protocols. But the tumor came back.
We spoke occasionally. We had never been close, but I thought maybe I could provide a unique ear for her--someone who wasn't afraid to talk about illness and pain; someone who cared, but wasn't a close friend or family member. Someone who was less likely to cry or pull away out of pain or emotional discomfort.
As the disease progressed, she moved back home. We spoke on the phone from time to time. She had a falling out with a close friend--she was dying, her friend was getting married and moving on with her life, and they couldn't seem to communicate across that divide.
When I was home for the holidays I stopped by to visit her. She was thin. Very thin. But that smile still lit up the small room. She had given up futile treatments by then, and she knew she was dying. Abdominal pain and nausea we constant companions, but she found significant relief with marijuana.
We sat on the couch and talked about it...about pain, about pot, about friends. Then she looked at me and said, "You've seen people die of liver cancer?"
"What's it like? To die of liver cancer? What happens?"
She didn't need my tears, she needed my knowledge. I took a sip of water and a deep breath.
"Well, most of the people I've seen slip into a coma. We give them whatever pain medicine they need. As the liver fails, it can't process toxins. Eventually, you'll probably fall asleep and not wake up."
We talked like that for a while. I realized that despite our not being close friends, I was in a unique position. It is a kind of intimacy that isn't quite a doctor-patient relationship and isn't quite a regular friendship. It's a relationship built on a horrible reality, that both people understand, but from very different perspectives.
I hugged her goodbye, and the next morning headed home.
She did OK for a while. A local massage therapist donated her time to help bring her physical comfort. Her family was wonderful. But some things are inevitable.
A few months later, I heard she died.
Death was inevitable, but she found a way to make it less horrible for her than it could have been. It's a lesson I can't forget.