Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lessons from the oncology waiting room

Today is the memorial service for Dr. Phil O'Berry.  He is so famous in our town that his memorial is being held at the student union on campus.  He used to be the director of the research institute at which I'm employed, but I didn't know him then.  I met him in the oncology waiting room, both of us near the end of our respective chemotherapies.

At first I was jealous of Dr. O'Berry, because when the nurses called him back they would literally call, "Doctor O'Berry?".  I would think to myself, "Hey, I'm a doctor, too!"  It's not that I actually wanted to be called "doctor", but I was trying to be sensitive to a potential gender issue.  I've settled on it simply being an age and respect issue because after visiting with him, I too had trouble just calling him, "Phil".  He definitely lived his life larger than just Phil.  He commanded respect.  He was Dr. O'Berry.

One of the last times I saw Dr. O'Berry in the waiting room was my last chemotherapy before my mastectomy.  I was telling him how nervous I was, and probably how tired I was of the whole cancer treatment business.  And that's when he told me to never stop brushing my teeth.  He told me that he had been fighting colon cancer for seven years and was supposed to have died five years ago.  He told me that it got really bad when he quit brushing his teeth.  I took it as a metaphor for "never give up".  I think he meant that there's no sense in sitting around, waiting to die, and as long as you're living you have to brush your teeth.  So brush your teeth and live another day.  Most of these are my words, but if I had to attribute a direct quote to him it would be, "Never stop brushing your teeth."  

When I mentioned to my co-workers that I'd met Phil O'Berry, a fountain of O'Berry greatness spilled forth.  I couldn't believe that I had met this somewhat famous person and had been totally ignorant during our interactions.  Apparently he was an amazing scientist, the best director the center has ever had, and a wonderful father to both biological and adopted children.  I wanted to tell him how highly everyone thought of him, but I was at the end of my weekly chemo treatments and didn't know if I'd run into him again.  Also, in our previous conversation he told me he'd be going into hospice care soon.  So I wrote him a note and left it at reception for the next time he came in for a treatment.  I told him how great he was and how much I appreciated his conversations.  He wrote me back one time, and that was the last I heard from him.  

Today was his memorial service, and I decided to skip it.  I know, I'm a heathen.  I should be there showing my support for his family.  But instead I am enjoying the glorious weather with my fantastic family, heading to an amusement park to end our summer with a "bang".  I'm telling myself that Dr. O'Berry would understand, but I still feel a pang of guilt about it.  

(We're riding the hot air balloons.  Uncle Andrew is the filmmaker, with Aunts Hilary and Holly and Cousin Kael in the adjacent balloon.)

Rest in peace, Dr. Phil O'Berry.  I'll never stop brushing my teeth.  


  1. What a beautiful tribute to Phil, Heather. And, had you attended said service, you'd see that Dr. O'Berry leaned towards the heathen spectrum of religion - just like you! His eulogy was so uplifting - no questioning why or where he is, no lamenting his passing. Instead, it was filled with bits and pieces of stories very similar to the one you just shared. Are you sure you don't think there is some kind of divine intervention or scripted chain of events in your meeting? :-) I'll get you an audio of the service if you're interested . . .

  2. Sounds like an amazing person. I'm happy you got to meet him. Huzzah to you taking advantage of such an awesome day. And keep brushing (and flossing) your teeth :)

  3. My great aunt Thelma also says to never stop dental hygiene. Thelma had stopped brushing her teeth when she was going through cancer treatment. It's a practical lesson (she had some pretty bad tooth problems after not brushing for a while) and a wonderful metaphor. Phil sounds like a great guy. That's pretty awesome that you got to meet him.

  4. I would like to meet Thelma someday.