Death of a Mentor

My friend, teacher and mentor Reynolds Jarvis MD died on May 21, 2019, after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gherig’s Disease.

Reynolds was a man who came into my life in that period of time between 1983 and 1987 when I was learning how to be a doctor, and more specifically, a psychiatrist. Yes, I had earned my MD degree in 1983, and I was licensed as a physician, but I had not clue one what I was doing. We were all struggling back then, all the folks in my small residency class at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia, to find our sea legs on the ocean of pathology that confronted us daily. Reynolds was one of the men and women who was entrusted to teach us how to be knowledgeable, compassionate, competent doctors.

He was one of those rare physicians who was proficient and comfortable with one foot in the world of mental illness and the other in the world of internal medicine. He was at ease when diagnosing cogestive heart failure, pancreatic disease, hypertension, as well as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. If a patient had more than one illness, and one of each type, then bring it on. He would help us learn how to tease apart the pieces of history that we needed to make accurate and relevent diagnoses.

He liked to tell stories and especially liked to put things in the context of what real people needed and wanted, and how they went about seeking the goods and services that they needed to make their lives better. These concepts had been formulated and taught by another of our mutual mentors, Dr. E. J McCranie, several years before. We all loved to stand around a keg of beer in those heady days, waxing poetic and scientific about the ins and outs of human need and psychiatric pathology.

Reynolds would rotate as attending physician on both internal medicine services and psychiatric services. Rounding with him, talking over patient presentations with him, was a treat. He had the respect of both departments, and that was not lost on his charges.

Another physician friend of mine made me aware of his illness one day at church. I had not known that Reynolds had been ill, as I had not seen him in many years. He told me about his diagnosis, which room he was in at the hospital, and said that he had been by to visit. I might want to stop by to visit too, he offered. I thought about this, knowing that it would be the right thing to do, and promised myself that I would consider it.

I never went to visit my old friend and mentor.

I feel sad about his death, but now I feel even more guilty that I did not go to tell him thank you before he died. Why did I not make the effort to go to the hospital to say hello?

There are many reasons, some of which are merely excuses. I can tell myself that. It doesn’t help, but I tell myself that anyway. I remember Reynolds being large and in charge, in that soft, confident, smooth talking way that only he could. I remember him being smart, so much smarter than me, and thinking that one day it would be great if I could be half as proficient at my craft as he was at his. I remember him being one of my teachers, only seven years ahead of me in his graduation from medical school, but seemingly light years ahead of me in experience and confidence. I was so angry inside when I heard that ALS was going to cut his life short, in that cruel way that any progressive neurological disease does, robbing one of all dignity at the end, and not respecting race, color, creed, class, or MD after a name as it ruins another life.

I did not want to see him that way, could not see him that way. I did not want to confront his death, for in doing so, in saying goodbye to my teacher, I would now have to realize that I am closer to confronting my own. Each loss we bear brings us closer to our own loss of this life, and I was not in a place to do that. I feel ashamed, but it is the truth as I feel it right now. Diseases like ALS take away all our control, and I could not bear to see my old friend, once so easy going and confident, in that state. Forgive me, Reynolds.

His funeral is on Saturday at our church. I will be able to attend, just before I take the short drive to Aiken to work a long emergency room telepsychiatry shift until midnight that night. I will go to pay my respects, as I should.

Do we really lose people, their ideas, their skills, their emotional imprint on this world when they die? Do we really? Or do we carry part of them with us, always, imbedded in us just as surely and firmly as any of our own DNA?

I choose to believe that when they are gone physically that we keep some of them with us until we are gone, and by that time we have passed some of that wisdom and wit and energy and intelligence and competence along to someone else that we care about very much. As the wonderful animated movie Coco taught us, as long as someone has a picture of us, thinks about us, and holds us dear, we never really die. It’s only when there is not a soul who remembers us that we truly pass away.

Dr. Jarvis, I will go to your funeral on Saturday. I will smile when I think about the things you taught me that I use to this day. I will leave your funeral, go to my office and see people in the emergency rooms of South Carolina who are in need. And I will be very, very glad that our paths crossed as you taught me what it means to be a physician.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, friend.

Amen.

(Image of Dr. Jarvis via Platt’s Funeral Home obituary in the Augusta Chronicle)

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