In a previous post, What Makes A Hero, I discussed what I consider to be the criteria that one must fulfill to be considered a hero. In this post, I want to talk about someone who fulfilled those criteria in spades.
I'm talking about one of my colleagues, Don Liu. A pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago, Don and I first met years ago when his wife forced him to finally go see a primary care physician—me. She had to force him because, like many physicians, he'd always thought about his own health last. This was with good reason, however: I know of no specialty in medicine that demands longer or more grueling training than pediatric surgery (with the possible exception of neurosurgery), nor more grueling a schedule once that training is finished. And no pediatric surgeon was more dedicated than Don.
Don has always been perhaps one of the most generous, happiest people I know. Of course, I only know what I've seen when he's come to see me in my clinic or when we've passed each other in the hospital hallways and stop to chat. He's always smiled though, as if, I sometimes think to myself, he was just glad to be here—to be a surgeon, to be at the University of Chicago, to be alive—and has remained acutely aware of how lucky he's been to be all those things, despite his insanely busy schedule.
And he has been busy. Apparently, it's not been at all unusual for him to be awakened in the middle of the night so he can operate on a child brought in after a trauma, to go home afterward to steal another hour or two of sleep, and then to wake up and come back to the hospital to begin a full-day's worth of scheduled operations. He's also run the Section of Pediatric Surgery and has had numerous other administrative, teaching, and research responsibilities. He's also been a husband and a father of three children.
But none of the above is why I'm writing about him now. (I wish it was though—his day-to-day life hasn't made him a hero, but it's made him a remarkable human being who deserves not only recognition but also celebration.) Instead, I'm writing about him now because of something he did just last Sunday.
He was vacationing on the shores of Lake Michigan with his family and some friends when two kids of one of his friends found themselves in trouble out on the lake in a kayak. The kids, I'm told, were thrown from the kayak into dangerously high waves. Don saw they were in trouble and despite the protests of his own children that conditions were too dangerous for him to go in after them, did what he always did when children needed his help: he dove right in.
He reached the kids and managed to help them to shore. But then a riptide current caught him and dragged him out into the lake. And he drowned.
I can only guess at the thoughts that passed through his mind when he saw his friend's kids in trouble: that the water was dangerous, that his own kids didn't want him to go in, but that he couldn't stand by and risk his friend's kids drowning. Yet in circumstances that demand immediate action, we don't ruminate, we react. And I'm guessing that Don just found himself jumping into the water, his conscious mind perhaps only realizing it once the cold water met his skin.
I wonder if I would have done what he did. We often think we know how we'll react when facing certain circumstances, often assuming we'll do the right thing, the best thing, the heroic thing—the thing that best enables us to preserve the positive image we have of ourselves. Luckily, most of us never have to find out just how well (or poorly) we know ourselves. Because though I'd like to think that some part of Don paused to recognize that he was, in fact, heroic to dive into that water, and that he gave himself credit, however momentarily, for being willing to risk his life to help others, he paid the most awful price imaginable to learn he not only lived up to his own expectations, but also exceeded the expectations we all had of him.
I doubt he did, however: things probably happened too fast, and he was probably too focused on what he needed to do to think about what doing it said about his character. And frankly I doubt, had he survived, that he would have worn the mantle of hero with anything other than embarrassed discomfort. He just didn't seem to ever think of himself in those terms.
But I do. Even before this tragedy I sometimes thought about how nice it was that Don walked the same halls that I did. The world is only as good as the people in it bother to be, and whenever I would hear laments about the awful state of the world we live in or man's inhumanity to man, one of the people I would sometimes summon to mind to encourage myself that there was good in the world too was Don.
He was, as we say in Buddhism, a bodhisattva: a person who lived his life in the service of others. That he did so quietly and consistently only makes his life more worthy of respect and imitation. His friends and family are in shock now, of course. I too have a hard time believing he's no longer alive. This is a natural response when someone in our lives dies out of turn. It forces us to deal not only with our loss but also with our knowledge that we ourselves will one day also be lost. The lessons here are the same ones we're always learning: that life is both precious and fragile; that we must appreciate what we have because we will one day lose it; that we should strive to live in a way that enables us to avoid lying and regret, because one day we'll run out of chances to live differently. It's helpful, though, in trying to live rightly to have an example of what "rightly" means. How lucky we all were who knew him that we had that example in our friend Don.
I wrote this post as a tribute to Don, but the real tribute to him I'll make will be this: I will use his example and make his life continue to mean something by living rightly myself and appreciating the time I'm given.
I'm so sad that you died, Don. I wish you were still here. But like all tragic things, from this tragic thing value will yet arise. Value will yet arise.
Pre-order Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, which will be published in late 2012.