Doctor dies at 57 after his own fight against cancer

Dr. Paul Knoll was a cancer fighter. He was as compassionate with its sufferers as he was fierce in battling their diseases. Then Knoll became the cancer patient.

The Everett oncologist and medical director for Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County learned he had colon cancer in 2002. Treated with surgeries and chemotherapy, he twice had his cancer recur as he continued to care for patients.

At the end of his life, he became a hospice patient. As his role was reversed, he still found ways to share his wisdom and humanity.

Knoll, 57, died Aug. 5 at his home in Mukilteo. He is survived by his wife, Mary Knoll; his children, 28-year-old Annemarie Knoll and Robert Knoll, 24; his mother, Ann Knoll; and many loved ones, friends and colleagues.

Since 1981, Knoll had practiced in Everett, first on his own, then for years with the Western Washington Medical Group, and recently at the Providence Regional Cancer Partnership. He was honored this spring by the Home Care Association of Washington as its 2008 Physician of the Year. On May 2, he was featured in a front-page Herald article.

Dr. James Congdon, who practiced with Knoll for more than 25 years, called his friend a brilliant man with an encyclopedic memory. “In addition to clinical acumen, the thing remembered most about him was his empathy for patients,” he said.

After decades of doing the same work, Congdon said some doctors turn to administration or research. “Paul was never interested in doing that. Taking care of patients and being their advocate was always the center of his professional aspirations,” he said.

With all the medical and emotional demands shouldered by cancer doctors, family is a great refuge, said Congdon, adding that Knoll was very close to his wife.

“It was an extraordinary relationship,” said Mary Knoll, a violinist with the Everett Symphony. “After 37 years, we were still crazy about each other.”

They were University of Washington undergraduates when they met on a blind date. They married in 1971. Born in Corvallis, Ore., Knoll’s family had moved to Mercer Island. He went to medical school and served his internship and residency at the UW School of Medicine.

Paul and Mary Knoll shared interests in classical music, the arts and travel. After a family trip to Europe when their children were 5 and 10, they returned every year. Knoll was keenly interested in churches and museums. Back home, he sang in the choir at Everett’s First United Methodist Church.

“He was such a Renaissance man, interested in the arts, science and nature. He had a CD collection as big as Tower Records, both classical and classic rock,” Mary Knoll said. They traveled to the University of California at Los Angeles for their son’s senior oboe recital last December, but Paul Knoll couldn’t make it to Robert’s UCLA graduation this spring.

When their children were small, Knoll made them breakfast every morning. “He had the softest heart,” Mary Knoll said.

After illness forced him to retire this spring, Knoll continued to help with hospice.

“He kept saying that his life had to have value,” said Sherri Pride, director of Providence Hospice. The agency serves dying patients, helping them stay in their homes.

In his last weeks, Knoll attended meetings with hospice teams of nurses, social workers, chaplains and home health aides. What he had to share was often so eloquent, it would leave the group speechless, Pride said.

Knoll was a pioneer as a hospice medical director, beginning in the early 1980s. He was so dedicated, Pride said, that if an attending physician wasn’t available, Knoll would drive to a pharmacy on his day off to help a suffering patient.

In his last week, Knoll had round-the-clock hospice care at home. “His final gift to us was to teach us how to journey with him,” Pride said.

“He taught me by example how a person can travel on one of life’s most difficult journeys and do it with grace,” said Julie MacDougall, director of medical oncology with Providence Regional Cancer Partnership.

“He was not one of those people who bring attention to themselves,” said Pride, “but here was an absolute diamond of a person in our midst.”

Reporter Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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