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Sunday night I received a call from a number I didn't recognize; it turned out to be Atia's pediatric oncologist, Dr. Rubin. It was strange because he has never called me on the weekend unless responding to an emergency page from the hospital's after-hours answering service.
So you can imagine my trepidation when I heard his voice; I had a feeling that the phone call might not be good and my instincts, unfortunately, were spot on...
Dr. Rubin began by assuring me that the call had nothing to do with Atia, and immediately I was relieved, but that didn't ease the pins and needles sensation moving up and down my body.
Regretfully, he went on to explain that Dr. Nachman, one of the brilliant pediatric oncologists that had treated Atia on many occasions had passed away this weekend of a suspected heart attack. He was rafting in the Grand Canyon with a group of cancer survivors. He was 62 years old.
My stomach dropped. How could this be? I mean, even in his downtime, the man spent his time on retreats with the very people he helped save EVERY day - cancer survivors. He was incredibly dedicated to his craft and was, by all accounts, a leading expert in his field.
Dr. James Nachman, better known to the kids and families at Comer Children's Hospital as "Dr. Knock Knock" was an upbeat, joyful spirit who possessed a bright, positive energy. He'd walk into a room with a smile asking, "How's my favorite girl?" It didn't matter who the patient was - they were all his favorite, so it was fitting and each child wore their title proudly.
Without exception, he'd hold out his wrist and ask, "Who's on my watch?" Atia especially loved that part, because she knew the script; she didn't even have to look at the watch. With a huge smile, she'd point at it and exclaim, "Mickey Mouse!" He wore that watch every single day, without fail. Parents and children, alike, knew that when Dr. Knock Knock walked into the room, he'd work that watch into the conversation somehow.
As you've learned over the year of following Atia's story, Steve and I are pretty high maintenance parents; we ask a lot of questions, expect professionalism, and are always desperately seeking reassurance that Atia will ultimately defeat her leukemia diagnosis and go on to live a spectacularly active life.
So a few months after we transferred to Comer Children's Hospital, you can guess how we felt when we learned that Dr. Rubin had a family emergency and would be unable to perform Atia's spinal tap - the most complicated of all procedures in her treatment regimen because it entails extracting spinal fluid and injecting chemotherapy into her spine all while sedated.
We trust Dr. Rubin and although we hold the entire staff at Comer's in high regard, Dr. Rubin is our lead physician and we didn't feel comfortable with anyone else doing the spinal tap other than him. However, in this instance, there was no choice. Dr. Nachman was going to do it. We had never met him, so the nurses quickly began listing off his impressive accomplishments.
As a matter of fact, I specifically remember being told that we were fortunate that Dr. Nachman was in the office that week because he'd just come back from a lengthy world-wide tour speaking about various pediatric cancer treatment protocols.
We learned that he was "an internationally renowned expert in cancer research and an authority in the medical management of childhood cancers--especially leukemia and lymphoma." (source)
Clearly after hearing that, we breathed a sigh of relief. Moments before the procedure began he asked in a casual, chatty way about Atia's ALL classification. He wanted to know if she was standard risk, standard-low or standard-high. "Standard-low", we replied. He then asked, "Does she have the extra chromosome?" "Yes", we replied.
With a happy-go-lucky look, he told us that she was going to be fine. He said he deals with high-level, extremely complicated cases all the time and that Atia had one of the best possible scenarios.
Over time, Dr. Knock Knock became a part of Atia's team. Every time she was admitted to the hospital for a fever and low blood counts, he'd make a point to stop by to say, "Helloooo." It seemed that he was there even when he wasn't the primary physician on duty. He'd always ask about her symptoms and then with a light-hearted smile he'd shrug his shoulders and say, "She's gonna be fine", and she always was.
That's the thing about Dr. Knock Knock, he always seemed to be able to calm the situation no matter what it was. And, if he told you not to worry about it, you didn't. His words were magic and we'd often be chomping at the bit just to have him stop by to tell us everything was going to be alright. He'd seen it all - the good, the bad and the ugly - so as long as he thought we were "fine", we were fine.
Dr. Knock Knock, you were a goofy man with some lovely child-like qualities, and we always felt comforted by your presence. We will desperately miss the bounce in your step as you whisked out of the treatment room as quickly as you had whisked in.
My hope is that someday we'll see that Mickey Mouse watch again. I woke up this morning with a vision of it encased in a glass box on display at Comer's for all to see, and for the parents/caregivers that were blessed with the opportunity to know Dr. Nachman to ask their children, as they walk by, "Who's on that watch?"
In loving memory of Dr. James Nachman.
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