About two hours after Shawn’s colon surgery began, the head surgeon came out to talk with me and my friend Jason about how everything was going. “There were a few complications,” he began. My heart seemed to stop and time slowed down.
“After we put in the scope, we encountered pus, indicating an perforated colon,” the surgeon told me, “and so we had to convert to a standard open operation.”
I looked at Jason. He looked calm. “Okay,” he said.
The surgeon continued to explain what happened, assuring me that even with the changes, everything had gone well. I turned again to Jason, who looked at me and said, “this is all totally normal.”
The surgeon left, and I said, “Jason, please tell me what the hell just happened.” And he did.
Jason is a pediatric oncologist. He works at the National Cancer Institute which is part of the National Institutes of Health. He’s also our dear friend, one of those we made way back before we became parents. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the day of the surgery, and many days that followed, he was also my guardian angel.
I have so many dear friends, as I’ve written about before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had a friend quite like Jason.
When our first child was born, he took beautiful photos of her and then made her first pediatrician appointment from our hospital room, booking us with his own child’s pediatrician. He took every strange medical phone call we had for him, and when we worried about one thing or another with the kids, he always calmed me down. But what I enjoyed the most about Jason was that when we would get together with our big group of friends – most of whom worked in the national security field and would often spend hours talking about the politics of the defense department or something else I knew little about – he’d talk to me about kids and teaching and the best places for a long run and basically everything else under the sun. I always joked that Jason was going “straight to heaven!” because he was a doctor who worked with kids with cancer so if anyone deserved a ticket there, it was him.
Before Shawn got sick, Jason was just my friend who always had a funny (or corny) joke for all of us. He wasn’t some fancy doctor at a special hospital. He was just Jason.
When we ended up in the local hospital the week after Thanksgiving, I got in touch with Jason and explained all that we knew – Shawn might have a mass in his colon and he definitely had spots on his liver. Jason wanted to see the original scan, so the next day he came to the hospital to get a copy of it. He showed up right in the middle of Shawn’s colonoscopy and met me in the waiting room.
I was hysterical. I had started sobbing before he got there and he could do little but hug me and just sit with me as I wept in a room not made for such a scene. He’s a doctor, and having grown up with my doctor father, I knew he wouldn’t tell me it was all going to be okay. But he would sit with me and he wouldn’t need me to do anything other than cry. That’s exactly what happened.
I didn’t even have the results of the colonoscopy. That came about an hour later. I just had the fear of the results. We talked, finally, and I felt a bit better. He left, and I went to find out what they had found.
A few hours later, I texted him, “It’s stage 4 colon cancer.”
He texted back, “We are here for you.”
Never has a more true text been sent. Jason was back at the hospital that night, talking us off a cliff. The local hospital didn’t send up anyone from oncology (we were there for 5 days, and never saw an oncologist) and we feared the worst.
Jason must have known this. Once he went over the results with us, he called his friend at NIH who was the head of surgical oncology. It was Friday night, but they talked about Shawn’s case and he agreed to meet us Monday. That promise – that we could see someone at NIH – got us through that terrible weekend.
And so we went to NIH and Shawn had surgery just a few days later. There were many complications, and what we thought would be a few days there turned into almost a month.
Jason was there at every moment. He brought me bagels constantly, conferred with all of Shawn’s nurses and doctors, sat with me through most of Shawn’s many procedures and translated all of the medical terminology in a way we could understand. He found me extra blankets, took me to lunches where I didn’t eat, joked with the nurses so that they’d like us more, and stayed even when things were gross or scary. He was a constant presence in our hospital room, and each time that the head surgeon would come in, he would ask what Jason thought about whatever had recently happened. We had many doctors working our case, but everyone knew that Jason was going to be consulted at each point.
Jason sat with me as I cried many, many times. I remember one day, in particular, when he took me down to the big cafeteria in the basement and we talked about the possibility that Shawn could die. This was early on, so I still had a lot of hope, but I was also scared. He was encouraging, but he was realistic. It was terrible. But it was also so good, because I knew that he’d tell me the truth, and that he was going to figure out how to do what he could.
It wasn’t long thereafter that we had another meal (maybe bagels again?) in the lobby. We were talking about his medical training, and he pulled out a picture of a little boy. He started to tell me about the kid and I thought, “oh, this must be the first kid he saved from cancer.” It was the opposite. It was a kid he came to know and love – a kid he couldn’t save.
Jason told me that day, or maybe it was another day, that there were some patients that really stick with doctors. Deaths that really weighed on them. He told me about a patient he had lost that year who he still thought about. I guess all really good doctors have to have a bit of hard and soft in them. An ability to encourage and be realistic. An ability to be clinical and stay up all night looking for the answer, and an ability to hurt when they see the pain around them.
Jason is a doctor. A damn good one.
I think it’s important to mention that Jason is married to my dear friend Shannon, and they have two young kids who have soccer practice and after school clubs and all sorts of other activities things kids have. Shannon just finished a year at the White House and is back at the Pentagon. Jason is a pediatric oncologist who manages all of the research data that the National Cancer Institute collects. I had to actually look up his job description because it’s so complicated, and I found this: “Dr. Levine’s main research focus is on the development of large-scale systems to manage the data intrinsic to clinical and translational research.” Basically, he is a data geek, who also spends part of the year working with young cancer patients.
These are not people who have a lot of spare time on their hands.
I don’t know how many bedtimes that Shannon had to do alone because Jason was with us. I don’t know how many reports Jason stayed up late writing because he’d spent part of his day with us instead of working.
I do know that Jason had a conference he was supposed to go to on January 9th that he didn’t attend. Instead, I texted him that Shawn was dying, and he came into our room that morning. I had been up most of the night with Shawn, and now that I realized he was really, truly dying, I started to recount to him the story of our lives. I think I was up to about our wedding when Jason walked in. He just sat in a chair, and listened. He didn’t try and fix anything, because at that point, he couldn’t.
But he could be there with us. And so he was.
Shawn died that evening, and Jason never left. At the end, I stroked Shawn’s hair as he faded from this earth, and Jason sat by me. When it was clear he was gone, I sobbed, and Jason held me up as I wanted to crumble to the ground.
The first thing he said to me when I was able to breathe was, “You were amazing for him. And that was entirely peaceful for him.”
I cannot tell you how much those words have meant to me in the past few months. I replay them over and over again in my head. Because there is so much that I didn’t do and I didn’t say that I wish I had. But Jason told me that I had been enough for Shawn in the last moments of his life. That I didn’t need to feel regret. That he had died peacefully.
Maybe more than any other thing, those words were Jason’s greatest gift to me.
Jason spends every day working to cure cancer. He works with dying kids and their parents. He tries to put the pieces of data together to find something new and innovative to change the course of terrible cancers.
So obviously he’s going to heaven.
But even if he didn’t do all that other stuff, he’s still going there. I know because even if the gates are closed that day, Shawn will sneak him in through the back door.