Journeys with a Thousand Heroes
Introduction to my Memoir
It was my mother’s precipitate death from cancer that lit the spark for my life caring for children with cancer. They in turn became my mentors and companions on my journey to reclaim—as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—my full intelligence, heart, and home. The great irony of my life is that it wouldn’t be till after my retirement that I’d read the prophetic words she wrote me in a letter when I was twelve, two weeks before she died: “Johnny-Boy… I think you will choose medicine.” [More on that in a coming Blog…]
Witnessing the sacred moment of birth and first breath of a newborn during my medical school obstetrics rotation, holding the still beating cord in my hands, sealed my enduring love for children. This book tells the stories of some of them, and of my own life of care for them. They mostly had cancer or other critical illness, and I tell their tales against the backdrop of transformation in children’s oncology over the past four decades. When I graduated from medical school fifty years ago, hardly a child was cured; today, three-quarters may grow to have children of their own.
My writing comes out of the deep well of creativity and motivation my patients awoke in me. Children are artists in life and, faced with life-limiting illness, bring their creative intelligence to bear on frightening and confusing things, as they confront any manner of adversity. I think of fourteen-year-old Joey, “prancin’ and dancin’, smokin’ and jokin’” (his words) while he was busy dying of bone cancer. He challenged me: “Lighten up, doc, who said you’ve got to be so serious?” lighting my path towards a new joy in my work. Even to a certain notoriety for making ward rounds in funny hats and mismatched rainbow socks, sometimes on my bike.
My memoir’s title borrows from Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey—one that we all must undertake in our lives, however long or short they may be. In highlighting the heroism, resilience, and joyfulness of children—those “thousand heroes”—I’m linking life’s deepest meanings, thoughts, intuitions, to our universal concerns with illness and death.
I’m often asked how I could spend my life working with very sick children, many of whom died as I sat with them. Writing this book has given me the chance to explore what about my work fulfilled me so deeply. During forty years of medical practice, children have been my friends and my teachers. Not least in leaving me with the certainty that healing—in whatever form—is accessible to each one of us, no matter what afflictions may beset us.