Mourning Ride

It makes sense that most physicians are not deeply introspective. How could a surgeon think too much about ripping tissues and attacking their fellowman with a knife?  How deeply should a gastroenterologist muse while invading inflamed, bleeding, filthy body cavities?  As an oncologist may witness over 10,000 deaths in a career, there is just so much soul searching one can stand.  Thus, we may become automatic; get up each morning, attack disease, go home, rest, do it again.

One of my coping methods to deal with the threat of personal survival distance is to depend on my wife to keep me in emotional health.  Without that balance, that reality check, I suspect I would go cold or nuts. Therefore, this morning when she said, “Are you alright?  You seem upset.  Do you understand that every year you get depressed on this weekend?” I thought about it, dared to briefly introspect, and I realized she was right.

The first weekend of June, or thereabouts, brings two events that force me to face loss.   Not the strategic loss of millions by cancer, but the, I knew him and her, tactical deaths of specific and myriad people.  As part of the cancer wars, we attend two fund raising events.  The first is the fantastic ACS Relay of Life  and the second is the inspiring Amy Foundation’s, Bike Ride for Amy.  Both of these fundraisers are local, personal and involve people I know, dead and alive; survivors, families and countless memories.  Walking around the track at Relay, or gathering for the long ride at Amy, I see the spaces in the line, and the empty gaze in so many eyes.

Therefore, I decided to use the Amy Ride not only to be introspective, but also to mourn.  Perhaps, gliding down roads and pushing up hills, I could find some peace. The ride happens early on Sunday, when the roads are empty and the windows dark.  It winds through neighborhoods and small villages, in suburban and rural country.  We pass many hundreds of homes, which in the first heat of day, seem almost without life.

I decided that every time I passed a particularly empty home or a house for sale, I would use it to remind me of the memory of a particular person that I had seen die.  I would remember who they were, how they laughed, how they lived and how they reached their end.  I would let each house symbolize the beauty, energy, and knowledge which was their life.  The wood, stone and glass buildings reflected what they had given to the world, what they had built.  An overgrown garden, a small dry fountain, or a stain-glass door, their special love for life.

I honored many remarkable people during the ride.  Special people whom I really miss.  Gayle, Ann, James, John, Patrick, Louise, Ida, Cindy, Barbara, Mimie, Herb, Angelita, Eleanor, Louise, Regina, Kathryn, Alice, many more, and of course Amy herself.  I thought of them and just as in life, they carried me along.  Some houses brought a tear, some made me smile and many reminded me of wisdom shared.  I pedaled through a necropolis, but instead of cold stone crypts, a montage of living homes into which I placed hearts, dreams and memory.

I cannot say that my three hours of remembered grief made me feel significantly better.  This introspection stuff really hurts.  However, I did rediscover friends and went back to a time when they were patients and I was their doctor.  And, as in that past, they gently taught me a little more about the wonder of life.



  • To allow yourself to be so close to someone when thy are ill or dying is a great gift and so appreciated by the patient. This is very important work and never underestimate what this means to your patients. Take care of you first so you can take care of others. Always find time to laugh and spend time in nature. Thanks for your caring heart.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Thank you very much for your kind words and support. jcs
  • Angela
    I hope that should I ever need an oncologist he will be as competent and compassionate as you. As a R.N. I have worked with a few physicians who,like you,are both extremely competent as well as compassionate. Unfortunately they are the exception rather than the rule. I know this both from the professional & personal standpoint(patient & caregiver).
    • James Salwitz, MD
      May you never need an oncologist ... I would very like to be both compassionate and unemployed. Thanks very much, jcs
  • CB
    This post made cry. With sadness over the people I have lost and joy for the ones I know who are winning the battle (myself included-with the help od Dr S). I moved to Fl and I hope y new Doc is half as good as Dr. S. who I miss, and am so thankful for his loving care over the years.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Me too ... and I wrote it. FYI, crying and bike riding do not go really well together. I hope your new doctor is compassionate, loving and patient and that you have many years of perfect health. jcs
  • Lorraine Ippolito
    Understanding the necessity for keeping a certain level of detachment or emotional distance from your patients during their time in your care, as the daughter of one of those patients that passed on, I appreciate knowing that you also take the time to honor and celebrate those individuals even after they have left us. Thank you!
    • James Salwitz, MD
      I have come to understand that I carry a small piece of each person by whom I have had the honor to be called "doctor." Thanks very much, jcs
  • Terrance Burton
    I just want to say how THANKFUL I am for you. Every day I start off with a prayer for all our kids (now up to seven) and you. I have been truly blessed to have you as my Oncologist. In my forty five years on this earth I have never met a more compassionate and loving Dr. then you, Dr Salwitz. Last week as the Department of Children Services (DYFS) dropped of the seventh addition to our home, I thought to my self GOD is not through with me yet. THANKS to GOD and your wisdom and healing hands I'm still here!!! When your feeling down just look into the loving face of your Grand Dog and no I'm think of you! : )
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Thank you very much for your wonderful comments. Please give each child a hug for me. jcs
  • Touching post, completely in character.
  • DebRN
    I went out on a three mile run yesterday and had a similar experience. I will be 60 this summer and was trailing my strong 22 yo daughter. My thoughts were filled with gratitude for being the RN to some amazing people. I am able to jog and they are not. That's powerful motivation for me.We recently had to say good-bye to one and I realize I am grieving him. While running, I don't have to get him out of my mind. There is no way I can pretend that my life has not been changed for the better by knowing him and his family. Thank you for the continual inspiration!
    • James Salwitz, MD
      It seems surprising to me, the combination of physical activity and grief. We kind of associate mourning with dark rooms and silence. Perhaps there are marvelous possibilities in taking the pain of loss and changing it to conquering the next mountain. Thanks, jcs

Leave a Reply