Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Life and Death of Mr. Henderson

Keith Henderson was my friend, and my mentor, and presented me with a life changing opportunity, and now he is dead.

Often times, you get more than a few shots at life.  However, many never realize when the opportunities knock, until they are gone.  Look at the developers of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple.  They all took chances and succeeded wildly.  However, one never hear about the individuals who failed, and most certainly you never hear about the individuals who never took the chance of a lifetime.  And though my small story is nothing of the aforementioned empires to the mass media of our world, it is an empire to me because someone took the opportunity to invite me to take a chance in life.

In 2005, Keith Henderson appeared.  Often times, like many it was at a very low point in my life.  I was a poor student, struggling to pass my studies in "Academia".  My self worth was at an all time low as I had decided to run ramshackle in full kamikaze style throughout the bureaucracy of my medical education.  That said, it made for rough paddling towards a career when I had created a name for myself as an outspoken young punk.

Keith turned it all around when he met me on my surgical rotation and said, "So, you want to learn about surgery...I don't expect anything from you, but here are a few questions you can look up tonight when you go home.  If you can give me the answers, then you can tag along.  If not, no loss for me, I really don't care."

I've always enjoyed a good challenge, and I have always liked someone doubting my ability.  The next day I found him and gave him the answers to his "Medical Questions of the Day".     He said, "Huh, so you want to learn, okay, well, no expectations here, this is what you make of it, don't waste my time, and I certainly wont waste yours".

Keith was by all descriptions bigger than life, and as we started to work together my silly cartoon mentality couldn't help but giggle at the entourage we appeared as when rounding on patients.  He was at least 6'6" and about 250lbs, and he looked like a big brown bear.  Standing side by side we were the mixed race equivalent to the movie poster from "Twins".  He was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I was Danny DeVito.  Somehow, we just clicked.  We were both hams in front of crowds and he let me be me.  We fed off of each other's energy and quit wits.  It was comical indeed to see us roll into a patient's room and start riffing off of each other, telling jokes all the while doing actual medical work.

He had the ability to put patients at ease with jokes, humility, and an ability to morph as a chameleon to tell the patient what they needed to hear in their own language while never masking the truth.  I remember one of the patients saying, "Look, it's Frick and Frack" when we walked in and started our "Who's On First Routine".  I ate it up, and I think he did too.

A few months later I ran into him and he presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime.   He said, "Hey, you got any more slots left in your elective rotations?  I'm about to become the Chief of the Neurosurgical service down in Washington, DC.  You should come down, if you like it, I'll hire you.  I know you are looking for a job, and you have expressed interest in everything(Smart students catch on and say they like all fields by the way).  But this field is YOU.  If you don't like it, you can move on".

After taking his advice and taking a chance to work in the complicated and intimidating world he spoke of he started teaching me how to read MRI and CT scans and said, "See, it's easy, it's just Neurosurgery".  We would see tough and challenging cases, tell families their family member was sick and going to die or perhaps never ever be the same person again.  But the ease in which he could convey these things imprinted on me.  Beyond words I just knew I was embarking on something special...blind faith I guess.

Six years later I now sit as the new Chief of the same service he invited me to work for.  As the comic tragedy of life would have it, he succumbed to brain cancer, experiencing at first hand the news he used to deliver so effortlessly to the patients he cared for.  And as I sit writing this at a loss, I cannot be all that sad as I am all the more enriched by what he presented to me, an opportunity of a lifetime.  As I have grown into a man, I am certain he existed at that moment as one of life's holy angels to change my life forever.  He was the pusher of the pendulum  to move forward beyond challenges and mistakes into new uncharted territory.

On the week he died, I shared my sadness with my dad.  And he said, "Time to move on, and take over doing what he did."  I feel like the runner of the next leg of life's race, taking the forward progress already made and now making it my own.  I will forever be in his debt, and will always remember the legacy he carried to believe in others, the power of life, the human spirit, and most importantly me. 

1 comment:

  1. touching. I am sorry for your loss, but happy you gained so much out of your friendship.