On Those That Are Really Heroes…

A couple of minutes ago I came upstairs to use the bathroom and I startled my cat. She tried to jump up onto the toilet to get away, but ended up falling in, as ungracefully as one falls into a toilet. But, she’s got attitude.  She jumped out and looked at me as if to say, “If you tell anyone what you just saw, I’ll kill you in your sleep. Now, clean up that toilet water and get back to work.”  My cat cracks me up.

Isis Cat

Figure 1: One of the only existing photos of the Isis family cat, The Cheat. The Cheat is typically too stealthy to be photographed. Even her face here communicates a hearty “WTF, mate?”

I love The Cheat for two reasons. One, she is cool as fuck. But, more importantly, she frequently makes me think of one of the only true heroes I’ve ever known. A man who gave me much more than I ever gave to him.  We can call him  John Davis*

In 2002 I was living in a remote part of the United States, even more frigid than where I am now.  I had moved from Los Angeles to try my hand at a relationship with Mr. Isis and had taken a job as a coordinator and technician for a group conducting clinical trials. I coordinated four trials while I was there. The hardest and most rewarding trial investigated the ability of a new drug to improve quality of life in patients with end stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While running this trial I developed the term “lung butter.” It has become a common term in the Isis Lab Lexicon.  But, I digress…

The best source of study patients for this trial was the local Veterans’ hospital. The attending pulmonologist was happy to refer her patients for the trial. This is probably because the pharmaceutical company covered the cost of any medication you could squint at and relate in any way to their COPD, with little justification as to why one medication was chosen over another, and we saw her patients every two weeks. The wait to see her could be months.  In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about this arrangement, but at the time she seemed satisfied.

One of the patients that entered this trial was John Davis.  I was 22 and aggressive and sassy and I thought tremendously highly of myself. John Davis was 62 and quiet and reserved and walked with a wheeze and a shuffle. John Davis’s usable lung volume was only ~32% of what it should be. He was a veteran of a tremendously unpopular war and some deep sadness in his eyes told me never to ask him about it.

I saw John Davis every two weeks. Twice a month for a year. He drove 90 minutes each way for his visits, always bringing his wife with him. He wore sweatpants, a red flannel shirt, a ball cap commemorating his service, and scuffed brown house slippers.


Figure 2: A hat like this…

We had a patient room, but at each visit he and his wife would come and sit in the two horribly uncomfortable wooden chairs in my office. On the first visit of the month, John would take his study medication in my office and then I would monitor him for the next four hours. ECG, blood pressure, pulmonary function, etc. Upon request, he’d offer his arm, or his chest, or take the spirometer. Always silently.  At the end, he’d nod and say “Thank you, ma’am.”

I can only remember seeing John crack a smile twice. The first time was the middle of January and was the most painfully cold morning I had ever experienced.  Even turning the heater on failed to get the inside of the car above freezing.  Having grown up in Los Angeles, I had no real appreciation for the cold and went about my typical morning routine. I got up, I showered and washed my hair, and I ran out the door ten minutes later than I had hoped. On the way out, I grabbed a hat in recognition of the bitter cold. By the time I got to the office, John Davis and his wife were waiting for me and my hat had frozen to my head. He chuckled and remarked, “How did you get that to happen? It’s amazing you Californians survive.”

On the longer visits, he would be with me for 16 hours.  He and his wife in the uncomfortable wooden chairs, despite my protestations that they could sit comfortably in a patient room. We’d do pharmacokinetic studies. John would take his medication and then, in addition to all of the other monitoring, we’d draw blood every two hours to evaluate the drug’s appearance and clearance from his blood. John, like most people with COPD, had poor venous access and clotted poorly, but our study protocol specifically necessitated that each draw had to be a new puncture. We drew in all sorts of strange places. His legs and feet. His hands. Anywhere that didn’t collapse and I frequently missed. But, after every single blood draw, he’d rearrange himself and say, “Thank you, ma’am.”  That never ceased to blow my mind. Kneeling at his feet, his blood on my hands and shirt from the battle and him telling me “Thank you, ma’am.” He was 62 and knew so much. I was 22 and knew so little and had clumsily tortured him, but I always got a “Thank you, ma’am.”

For a long time I didn’t get it. I really didn’t.  I remember one exceptional moment of confusion. When John and his wife came for the longer studies, I would go down the road to the “…and deli” and order two sandwiches. Everything in that state is a “…and deli.” One afternoon, after delivering their sandwiches and leaving them alone in my office to enjoy a little time free of me, I realized I had forgotten something and returned. I entered to find Mrs. Davis picking the pickles off of John’s sandwich. I asked them both, “Why didn’t you tell me you don’t like pickles?” and he replied, “Just didn’t seem important enough to mention.”

The second time I saw John smile was at our last visit together. John and his wife showed up at the office with a little box containing a tiny gray kitten. I hadn’t expected them to bring a third to our meeting, but he handed her to me and smiled. He told me, “This was the prettiest of the lot, and she’s already got a sassy way about her. I think she’s meant to be with you. I got a feeling you both will find your own. Might as well do it together.”  At the end of the visit, I hugged his wife. I knew better than to touch John without his permission, but he bowed to me slightly and said “Thank you, ma’am, for letting me do my duty.”  I asked him what he meant and he replied, “Ma’am, they did this to us. A lot of those guys are worse than me and I’ll be glad if all these days with you leads to you all knowing something that helps them.”

I don’t really know if things are “meant to be” in our lives, but if they are, then I have no doubt that I was meant to know John Davis. That year, the clinical trials taught me a lot about anatomy and physiology and research, but John Davis taught me about duty and sacrifice and patience and dignity. He taught me that some people still think of the good of others, especially those less fortunate, and feel a duty to protect them. Even when it comes at a personal cost.  And, that there are bigger things in the world to fight for than whether there are pickles on your sandwich. You can always pick off the pickles and move on.

John was already so sick when I knew him, that I have no doubt he’s been gone a while now. But, I still have his cat. When she does something crazy and then looks at me with an attitude, it reminds me of him and everything he taught me. Reminds me to take his memory out and warm my heart with it a while.

I think John Davis was right. I think I will find my own someday. I really do.


*Of course his real name isn’t John Davis. Don’t be silly.

8 responses to “On Those That Are Really Heroes…

  1. Damn. You are on a roll lately, Dr. Isis. Thanks for reminding me of what is important.

  2. And so the unsung become the sung, and honored.

  3. Oh dear, I am crying. It doesn’t help that my father was one of nature’s gentleman, and I can see him doing something similar in that situation – and his family name was Davis (but not John, don’t be silly).


  4. … oh, and my father also had a lung condition that was acknowledged to be caused by his war service.

  5. “I was 22 and aggressive and sassy and I thought tremendously highly of myself.” Only the numbers change (but that’s not a bad thing, and this was a lovely post).

  6. Pingback: Links 7/11/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  7. Basically nice website. It was very useful for me. Retain sharing these kinds of ideas in the future as well. This is actually what I was looking for, and I am glad for you to came below! Thanks for revealing the similarly info with us

  8. You made me cry. Felt good. Thank you.

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