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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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