Elegy for a Doctor

By Gregory J. Davis

As long as you have life and breath, believe. Believe for those who cannot. Believe even if you have stopped believing. Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe. Never give up, never despair, let no mystery confound you into the conclusion that mystery cannot be yours.

~ Mark Helprin

We lost a dear colleague this week to sudden unexpected death. Dr Joe Pulliam was not only a brilliant physician but a warm, wise man blessed with a passion for patient care, inexhaustible energy in applying himself to that passion, and a sense of humor. While such attributes are what we wish to see in our doctors, we don’t always do. In this southern community in which people speak highly of those who have recently left us, the accolades about Joe are all true. His influence on and example for his students, resident physicians, and colleagues is indelible.

I take comfort in that influence and example. In this same week of the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath, comfort is in short supply. I do not have the solace of religion such as that of many of my friends and colleagues. My secular Judaism offers no answers to the Big Questions that abound in my mind today, but it does at least allow me the privilege of pondering those questions. 

I do know that in ways small and large, Joe’s influence in all of us who were fortunate to know him confers upon him an immortality of sorts, and therefore I feel more comfortable saying “all of us who are fortunate to know him,” the present tense seeming more appropriate. When engaged in the lifelong study incumbent upon us as physicians, Joe’s intellect will be there. When a gentle word comforts a frightened patient or family member, when a smile appears on someone’s face while working at the microscope, when an unsolicited kindness manifests itself, Joe will be there with us. One of the highest orders of gifts we humans can confer upon another is Zachor, to remember.

As his friends and colleagues, Joe Pulliam’s life and example are woven inextricably into who we are and whom we aspire to be.