The doctor who had time for people

Barbara Amiel on the death of her cousin, Dr. Robert Buckman

The Doctor who had time for people

Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star

At university in the early sixties, films told who you were. There were guy films like The Guns of Navarone and high-class chick flicks starring Audrey Hepburn, doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. On date nights I went to see Hollywood movies, on going-out-with-friends nights it was anything nouvelle vague and absolutely everything by Ingmar Bergman. His masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, gave me my notion of death.

Your age colours how you see death, and during university years it was black and white, melodramatic and terribly romantic. Death was La Dame aux Camélias, or Mimì coughing her lungs out in La Bohème. Death was heroic and sacrificial. We were Anna Kareninas dying over wrong choices and lost loves. Death was racing in fast cars like our pin-ups for fatal auto crashes—heartthrob James Dean or Nobel winner and French Resistance hero, author Albert Camus. Death was never chemotherapy and bedpans or a descent into senility. Death was a state to flirt with and reject, preferably in Givenchy like Audrey Hepburn. If death was to be drawn out it required intellectual style, like Max Von Sydow’s knight in Bergman’s film who plays a game of chess with death for 96 minutes. He loses, as we all must, and the film closes with a memorable scene in which fool and knight dance behind the Grim Reaper in a stark silhouette.

Death toyed with Steve Jobs and arrived last week, ending his life prematurely. Coincidentally, this past weekend death struck nearer to home when on Thanksgiving my cousin, Dr. Robert Buckman, died unexpectedly on the plane home after a trip to London. He died in his seat, fast asleep we hope. He was 63 years old.

I mention this not as a family indulgence but because Rob, as we knew him, had made the business of dying his life’s work and had helped thousands of people face it. Fortunately for friends and family, he was also a comedian who wrote funny books and did videos with John Cleese; otherwise I think he would have been horribly morose. By profession he was an oncologist, who came from London’s Royal Marsden to Sunnybrook and then Princess Margaret hospital in Toronto. Some titles of the many books he wrote explain what he did besides clinical work: What You Really Need to Know About Cancer; I Don’t Know What to Say . . . : How to Help and Support Someone Who is Dying; How to Break Bad News: A Guide for Health Care Professionals.

There are snippets of him on YouTube (ghoulish to watch now) explaining his aims: he believed many doctors were unable to communicate properly with patients facing the terror of cancer—not because they were cold-blooded, but because they simply didn’t know what to say, when to listen, how to handle the grief in front of them. He had seen it all close-up, with my brother-in-law who died at age 29 of cancer, which, in the preface to his book I Don’t Know What to Say, he credits as the motivation for his decision to specialize in cancer. Then came Rob’s own early glimpse at age 31, when he was struck with severe dermatomyositis. The British media got a bit ahead of themselves: newspapers ran articles on his forthcoming death, and the BBC informed viewers he was near the end. Thus his later “unauthorized autobiography” titled Not Dead Yet. He survived, ravaged by the disease, his appearance drastically altered, and his respiratory system damaged. “My personal experience with autoimmune disease,” he wrote, “which nearly paralyzed me for two years, taught me many things I should have known—as a patient I learned the value of the sympathy and support that distinguishes good doctors from ordinary ones.”

So he played chess with death on behalf of others. Steve Jobs would have had no problem calling up his doctors 24 hours a day to ask about a medication or treatment options, nor I expect would he have had any difficulty knowing what questions to ask. But most very sick people can’t get their frightened calls taken in the middle of the night or even the very next day. Rob became the go-to cancer doctor for everyone who called him. He would discuss, liaise with a patient’s doctors and explain, listen and patiently go through it all again. He gave lectures internationally, made training videos for doctors and helpful ones for sufferers and their families. No one’s death was “ordinary.” He was passionate about the need for communication as well as medication in the treatment of cancer and indeed in all diseases. In the fractured health care system we have of overworked doctors and rationed facilities, he was an oasis and one that I visited several times. His own health was always precarious, travel especially debilitating, requiring a week to recuperate. This time, coming back from filming in London with Terry Jones, another Monty Python alumnus, his luck ran out.

Jewish by descent and a humanist by belief, he had no difficulty answering the question, “Can we be good without God?” the title of his bestselling book. Rob never convinced me that there is no God and I always thought the matter was more accurately nailed down by the question, “Can I be good if I don’t believe in God?” His life was a positive answer, and God reciprocated by taking my cousin away in his sleep. He is survived by his four children and his wife, the brilliant pathologist and specialist in ovarian cancer, Dr. Patricia Shaw. This chess game is over. You held death in check time and time again while helping others live. RIP little cousin.

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The doctor who had time for people

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • Very poor.  Very, very poor.

      Ask not for whom the bell tolls Sophia.

      • Yes was a most unfortunate ringing of the bell farandwide. It doth ring for me. I regret my insensitive comments. Trying to get attention likely and envious of those who already have it likely the motive. On the other hand, very thankful for invisibility, a public figure is not to be envied at all whatever the personal sorrows they endure.

        • I wish you and your family and friends good health in the time ahead.

    • You are the one who lacks compassion Sophia, what a pathetic mixture of envy and self-pity you display!

    • Sophia:

      Very sad that people asked for all this fake piety and respect when ol’ “Photo-op” Layton passed, but you couldn’t resist, eh? 

      Good for the gander? 

    • Re Sophia:

      How can anyone genuinely feel loss unless it’s personal?  Feeling anything other than sympathy for the loss of a stranger to us is bathos.  What connects us all in our losses is the recognition that this condition is universal and a cat can relate to a king on this matter and vice versa.  But not Sophia.  She’s all about corrosive class envy.  How hardhearted and judgmental.  Writing about one’s loss is therapeutic for many.  Professional writers write for an audience in hopes of sharing some insight of value and additionally in Ms. Amiel’s case, honoring a loved relative. 

    • I thought the tribute was a moving account of the life of a man I did not know and was enlightened by the article and and by his many accomplishments in the face of considerable adversity.

      What an uneviable life this Sophia must lead to draw such conclusions! Compassion does not seem to have a very strong presence in it, while envy and vituperation seem to be there in far too much quantity.   

  2. I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to Dr. Buckmans energy and humor as a doctoral student at The Best Institute in Toronto and, partly because of him, continued on to medical school and then Ob/Gyn.  His words and writings helped me transform my thoughts of death from helpless fear and failure to productive respect and awe.  As with most great people – despite his overwhelming talents and accomplishments (or perhaps because of them) – he was a model of the best of us.
    Thank you Dr. Buckman.

  3. @Sophia,

    You are pathetic. Barbara can only write about whom she knows and about the facts of whom she doesn’t know. Rob was brilliant man and Barbara is a brilliant women. She would be the first to admit she is blessed by belonging to a talented family. You on the other hand lack talent and empathy.

  4. Thank you for this rememberance.  I was always impressed with Dr. Buckman whenever I saw or heard him in the media.  A very interesting man who lived a very interesting and very helpful life.

    R.I.P. Dr. Buckman.

  5. I often watched Dr. Buckman on TV and was impressed each time. And, even though the subject may not have been something that was typically of interest to me but, Dr. Buckman had a way of communicating that made learning something new seem very natural and even exciting – not boring or tedious or monotone. He always was so animated and excited about whatever he spoke on and that affected – positively, at least this member of his audience – no doubt seconded by many, many more. Judging from what I saw of the man on TV, if he was, as a medical doctor, any where as good at medicine as he was teaching on and communicating about  the subject, his patients had a great physician on their side.
    Thank you Ms. Amiel for this very poignant story about one of the quiet heroes of our time. Obviously, there is a gift of communication running through the family lines.
    My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. 

  6. Thank you Barbara Amiel for this remembrance of your cousin. I always paid attention when I heard him on TV or radio. I found him interesting and a brilliant communicator. I’m always fascinated when I see fellow Brits come to Canada and are prominent in their fields. I remember him before and after his illness hit. I greatly admired his courage to not only carry on, but to remain in the public eye and to use his experiences to bring compassion and humanity to the forefront. I had not heard of his passing until I saw the headline of this article. I’m also fascinated to know of the family connection with you.

    My very sincere condolences go out to his family, his friends, and to you.

  7. A very sensitive and eloquent piece. I didn’t know that he was Jewish, or that he wrote comedic scripts, or that he was associated with John Cleese et al. All I knew was that I liked him.

  8. Dr. Buckman seemingly got what many of us wish for ourselves and those we love. Carried away in his sleep. Hope it was BA–not AC !

  9. I had the good fortune to read “Can we be good without God” many years ago. It left a positive imprint and I have recommended the book to many others.  Ms Amiel, I extend my condolences. How fortunate you are to have this venue to eulogize those whom you love. Would that we all had this forum to tell others of the love and respect we have for those we have lost.

  10. Touching tribute to Robert Buckman….who better to salute him that his cousin.

  11. A great loss. I had the pleasure several times of meeting Dr.Robert Buckman, and always found him fascinating on TV. Condolences to his family.  

  12. Two paragraphs about herself before her “obituary” turns, reluctantly, to Dr. Buckman? “My goodness, I’ve been talking about myself all night! Enough about me. What do YOU think about me?”

    The humble, devoted, engaging, Dr. Buckman deserves better.

    • I thought the opinion column was beautifully written. It wasn’t even an obituary – it was an insightful series of observations on how Dr. Buckman affected those around him, and how his outlook changed people’s perspectives.

      It must be awful being such a petty person, Ben… 

  13. God bless him.

  14. Thank-you Barbara for this piece. I have had the honour to have “Dr. Bob” as one of my oncologists. As you stated, patients were never ordinary or routine. He always made me feel comfortable, as if I was part of his family. All of my concerns were considered and I was never made to feel as if my clinical appointments were rushed. My visits with Dr. Bob were enjoyable and I always left happy. I have often quoted him. He is one of the reasons I am alive today. He gave me the greatest give of all, he inspired me. Thank-you Dr Bob, for all you have done for me. RIP amico mio!

  15. I have only just come across this and was shocked that I had not heard about his death before. I also suffered with the illness dermatomyostis at the very young ago of 8 – in fact I was the first person to survive this awful illness. I know a tv documentary was done on Dr Rob Buckness through the awful time he had going through the illness and I have been trying for years to obtain a copy – if anyone out there knows where I can get one from I could love to hear from you.

  16. I always enjoyed listening to him on TV.

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