When I was young, I avoided reading obituaries out of superstition that I or a family member might fall ill or die.
When I was pursuing a medical education, my fear lessened and I became fascinated by obituaries–especially the 2nd paragraph, in which the cause of death is mentioned (or speculated upon).
As I’ve matured, I now read them because they are a distinct form of writing–succinct, and in telling about the decedent’s life, amazing true stories of our time here on earth.
Three recent NYT obits caught my eye, because each one had an interesting connection to health care. In chronological order of when they died, here they are:
John Sarno was a physical medicine and rehab specialist at NYU for almost 50 years. He was adored by his patients, particularly those for whom he helped achieve relief from back pain. He authored several books on the topic, suggesting that most if not all of it was caused by unresolved anxiety and rage. He coined the term “tension myositis syndrome” as a catch-all for the most common form of back pain–muscular pain that in most cases is episodic or short-lived. The obituary discusses how his ideas were never accepted into the medical mainstream, despite the facts that his books sold millions of copies just by word-of-mouth, and his own skeptical physician colleagues turned to him for help.
Spencer Johnson started his career as a medical doctor, but decided against a career in clinical medicine. As the obituary states, “…while working in a hospital, he grew frustrated at seeing the same patients return with the same ailments, as if they were not trying to better their lives…” He went to work for a medical device company, becoming its director of communication. Learning how to write succinctly for lay audiences led him to his ultimate success–co-authoring the massive bestseller “Who Moved My Cheese,” a parable about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones. It has since sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 44 languages.
I love the quote he gave to a newspaper writer: “Most writers write the book they want to write. You’re much wiser if you write the book people want to read.”
Keith Conners was a psychologist most known for his work in the world of defining and diagnosing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.). In the first half of the 20th century, hyperactive children with difficulty focusing were said to suffer from “hyperkinesis,” or the lovely moniker “minimal brain disorder.” Conners brought rigor to the field, and created the Conners Rating Scale, a 39-item questionnaire that became the gold standard for diagnosing A.D.H.D. Conners went on to become a critic of what has become a big industry, stating that A.D.H.D. is now diagnosed about three times as much as its actual prevalence. [If you are interested further in this topic, you can hear a podcast of my interview with author Alan Schwarz of “A.D.H.D. Nation” here.]
These doctor/writers all lived interesting and varied lives–I was simply struck by the proximity of their deaths and the loveliness of their obituaries.