By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
I like to fix things.
As far back as I can remember, I was the person who took broken things apart with the confidence that I could put them back together, while making them better. “Call Sanjay,” my mom would often tell her friends if they were confronted with a problem. At first it was lamps and clocks, or perhaps a dry wall that didn’t fit quite right or an edge of carpeting that always bunched up. It evolved into malfunctioning dishwashers, ovens, radios and computers. I helped my dad restore an old MGB when I was a teenager, after having practiced on a 1975 Ford Granada, and an even older lime green LTD.
It is perhaps what drew me to neurosurgery and the opportunity to tend to injured or diseased brains and spinal cords. There has always been great satisfaction in “fixing” things. It is also part of the reason I am so frustrated when I cannot. When I decided to visit my friend Nick Charles in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my stomach was in knots. He was dying of stage 4 bladder cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and his lungs. He had stopped his chemotherapy, and his disease was progressing. I desperately wanted to help Nick, to “fix” him in some way. I wanted to share as many medical options as possible, even while knowing they were not likely to help. I was nervous, and thought I should fill the void of silence that often accompanies the awkwardness of discussing death. With a broad smile, Nick gave me a hug, put me at ease and quickly started teaching me lessons from his fight.
He was thankful that I had come to visit him at all. Too many of his friends simply disappeared, either incapable of talking to a dying man, or too fearful of being forced to confront their own mortality. Some were just too sad, he told me, and they completely withdrew. Simply having me listen to him talk about his life and his fears was a great gift, he told me.
Nick didn’t want any false assurances. It would have been insincere to tell him he looked great. With the dark rings under his eyes, his astounding weight loss, along with the loss of his hair, and the impact of the chemotherapy on his skin, he looked sick. Suggesting otherwise would’ve brought the conversation to a halt, because Nick Charles would have seen right through that. Cancer had not taken away his insight or his intelligence.
We talked about things Nick enjoyed, mainly sports. Nick was the original sports anchor at CNN, and could teach you about any sport, but especially boxing. We talked about the various fights he had covered, including the one he announced for HBO this year. At one point he paused, and told me he was in a fight himself. He was fighting like hell for his life, and it didn’t look like he was going to win. It was jarring to hear. “So, what are you going to do about it?” I asked him with a smile. He laughed out loud.
“Short term goals,” he told me. We all probably spend too much time focusing on the long-term that we forget what is right in front of us. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes being smacked in the face with your own mortality to realize it. Another thing Nick does regularly is to keep a journal. He may write a note to a family member or just write down thoughts from the day. Helps focus the mind and prioritize your life, he said.
Nick also taught me that dying forced him to live in the present in a way he hadn’t done before. But, that didn’t mean he couldn’t dream and still imagine his future. Even though he was told he had less than 2 years to live, he and his wife decided to build their dream house and Nick picked out colors, designed the rooms and purchased a piano for the family room, even though he is unlikely to spend much time there.
He also still imagines calling fights as he did for HBO in March, even though it is difficult to travel, his voice has become weaker and he is requiring oxygen. With the loss of remaining time, Nick’s dreams have become grander, and it was easy for me to see how that has made him happy.
Nick took me into the construction site of the new house, walked me over to the closet where his 5-year-old daughter, Giovanna, will hang her clothes, and dreamed out loud of the dress she would one day wear to her prom. It’s a dress he will most likely never get to see. His face fell to pieces, and his composure broke, as he told me this. Openly sobbing, he apologized for the tears. And then, I lost it as well. I was choked up for the losses my friend Nick would endure.
“It’s OK,” he said as we walked outside. Two grown men, slightly misty eyed, thinking about their daughters, his hand on my shoulder. I was the guy who was supposed to fix things, but I knew I couldn’t take Nick apart and put him back better. “It’s OK,” he repeated, as if reading my thoughts. Try as hard as we might, we can’t always fix everything.