Schwab: Subject line of a friend’s email simply read, ‘Plans’

A fellow surgeon and friend confronts death with the calmness and dry humor he always exhibited.

By Sid Schwab

Herald columnist

Last month I got an email from an old friend. Its subject was “My plans.”

Fresh out of residency, I met him when I arrived in Oregon to begin my surgical career. Also a surgeon in town and, therefore, a future competitor, he and his wife nevertheless welcomed me and my wife, invited us to dinner, after which, as easily as if we’d known each other forever, we became pals, the four of us. Laughed, dined, traveled. Had sleepovers, even.

Judy and I moved to Everett 37 years ago, but we’ve stayed in frequent touch, they visiting here and we there. We attended each of their children’s weddings. Our scheduled trip together to the Oregon coast last winter was scrapped after his wife got into a terrible auto accident. Her recovery was arduous.

Eleven years older than me, he’d attended college at the arch-rival of mine. The first intercollegiate baseball game, in 1859, was between our two schools. “We” won, 73–32. Referred to as “The biggest little game in America,” the football rivalry is the oldest in Division III, fourth-oldest in the U.S. He captained lacrosse; I played rugby. We were in the same fraternity in our respective schools, laughingly shared the ridiculously complex, secret handshake. We both served as military doctors; he outranked and outlasted me.

The email arrived on a Thursday. The plan to which its title referred was suicide. Saturday.

In my surgical practice, I’ve dealt with death, in and out of the OR. On a couple of occasions, I’d been the one to turn off a ventilator; have counseled families when the inevitable was approaching. And I watched the grim, relentless decline of my mother and grandmother as their vibrant humanity was cruelly peeled away, layer by layer, by Alzheimer’s disease. Along with my family, I sat beside my dad as he died; was with my cousin when her mom breathed her last. I’ve told myself that if I knew I was heading to the final station, especially with dementia, I’d jump off the train before it got there. Until now, though, the idea of assisted suicide had been an abstraction. Suddenly, it was immediate, and I had thoughts. Like, what would he (anyone) be thinking at the moment of drinking the potion?

Next evening, as in better times, we talked on the phone. He sounded good, relaxed. We recalled the fun we’d had, I told him how grateful I was for his friendship, how important it’d had been for me, the young guy, to work with him in the operating room on those rare occasions when it happened. How sorry I was it had come to this, that I respected his decision and considered it courageous. Asked how his wife was doing, he said, “She’s fine. Looking forward to it.” Typical.

“It’s been a wonderful week,” he said. “Each day, family was here, with tears and laughter. It’s like I got to attend my memorial service. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it this way.” He wrote his own obituary.

Debilitated and disabled with unrelenting back pain, dependent on supplemental oxygen because of progressive, untreatable lung disease, he’d become unable to get out of bed. Until his intractable spine made it impossible, he, a lover of golf, had a dream job after retiring, traveling the Northwest reviewing golf courses for a magazine. Now, bedridden and air-hungry even on oxygen, frustration and humiliation were constant. His pain medicines made him feel unlike himself. In hospice care for months, he was tired. And ready. On Saturday evening, he and his wife in Oregon, we here, all we could do was drink a toast, and, with sadness and smiles, honor him.

Last week we had lunch with his wife. He’d waited till the afternoon, she told us, in order to see the kids of friends play their consolation game in the Little League World Series. They watched part of “Forrest Gump.”

Prior to the final cocktail, he took two prescribed pills. When he felt he was getting sleepy, his wife mixed the drink, per protocol, handed it to her husband, and climbed into bed next to him. As she snuggled into his shoulder, he said “I love you.” Not long after, he stopped breathing. She waited for a while, she said, to be sure. I wondered how she decided it was time to get up, and what it felt like when she did.

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