Substantive heroism

Jeff dozes as Matt recovers from his fifth open heart surgery, April 2014. I took a screen capture of this peaceful moment, a respite amid the intense and exhausting two weeks in the hospital.

Jeff dozes as Matt recovers in the ICU after his fifth open heart surgery, April 2014.
My screen captured this peaceful moment, a respite amid two intense weeks in the hospital.

“Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship– qualities often ascribed to great physicians– are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.” ― Siddhartha Mukherjee

Reading Mukherjee’s impressive history of cancer treatment has made me even more aware of how much we owe to earlier generations of patients. These pioneers endured extreme discomfort, agony and even death from experimental treatments.  Their determination and courage enabled the medical advances that save so many of our lives today.  As in every other area of life, we benefit from the sacrifices of thousands of people whose names we will never know.

Illness takes no holidays, and medical crises have no predictable calendar. We all know people who are dealing with serious illness this season, unable to enjoy the festive cheer with the lightheartedness that is possible for those of us in good health.  I hope we will remember these friends in some way.  A personal note, a heartfelt prayer, a visit or call or small gift; any gesture that will acknowledge their trials, and let them know they are not forgotten in the rush of December.  One of the best ways to defeat despair is to brighten someone else’s day, especially this time of year.

This post was first published seven years ago today. Looking at it, I am amazed at Jeff’s stamina. When this photo was taken, he was himself less than five months recovered from a three-week hospital stay at Walter Reed in November and December of the previous year, after nearly dying during a marathon surgery that lasted all one day and into the next, his being kept deeply sleeping overnight while his surgeons took a brief respite. I’m also amazed at my son Matthew, who has suffered so much for so long, yet continues to love people and life with an enthusiasm that has never left him. Reflecting on my close association with these two remarkable men, I cannot feel as sorry for myself as I sometimes do. I’m thankful these posts remind me of how blessed I have been.

The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Mike C

    I can’t begin to imagine 5 open heart surgeries. That is an important work you cite, ” The emperor of all maladies.” I made it almost half way and it is still on by bucket list.
    I am worried about my niece who now at age 36 is very overweight and has developed CHF for what reasons i am not sure. She was the miracle Baby,
    less than two pounds, FAS baby whose mom was an addict. She has suffered also from eye damage secondary to increased O2 volumes as a pre-mie. Now she is on O2 most of the time. Terribly unfair.

    • Mike, I long ago had to abandon the very notion of fair or unfair where life is concerned. A minister said something in a sermon over 40 years ago that I have never forgotten. He said life was like the coach section of an airline flight– everyone got the same journey but paid vastly different prices. When I feel sorry for myself (or for Matthew, or Jeff as he suffered so much for four years while staying with us and taking care of us as long as he could) I remind myself of all the good things we had been given. It sounds trite but gratitude is one of the most important ways to stay healthy, mentally and physically. I really believe that.

  2. Good morning, Julia! I love this, and am sharing it with a friend that is just starting her fight against stage 2 pancreatic cancer. She had her first chemo on Monday.

    • Thank you Susan, I hope your friend is doing well. Pancreatic cancer is one of the tougher ones to beat, but if it’s Stage 2 that’s a sign of hope.

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