Tempering a terrifying killer
A 1981 “M*A*S*H” television episode that focused on Dr. “Hawkeye” Pierce’s deep despair about his inability to cure a young soldier of leukemia was stuck in my mind long after the series ended.
The TV show was set during the Korean War in the 1950s, when leukemia was perhaps as terrifying as having to face a heavily armed enemy. In the 1950s, a diagnosis of leukemia or another blood cancer was practically a death sentence, so within that context it’s easy to understand Hawkeye’s anguish. Here’s a doctor who takes death personally, a doctor who can’t comprehend giving up on a patient. Sure Hawkeye was a major prankster, but his character was also one of the greatest public spokespersons for the determination and compassion of the medical profession.
The stoicism of the soldier, who is much more concerned about his critically injured buddy, was understandable, but it didn’t make Hawkeye’s grief any easier. The actor, Patrick Swayze, who died from pancreatic cancer last year at the age of 57, played the role of the soldier in the aptly titled, “Blood Brothers” episode.
By 1981, when the episode first aired, leukemia was no less terrifying, which probably explains why the series’ writers used the disease for dramatic effect. But one doctor—a real doctor and researcher—was making progress against leukemia’s death count just as “M*A*S*H” was crushing audience records throughout the country.
That doctor is E. Donnall Thomas, whose development of bone marrow transplantation to treat leukemia and other blood cancers certainly would add plenty of dramatic material for any TV series today.
Thomas has been on my mind a lot lately—his 90th birthday is on March 15 and we recently finished an article about him for Quest magazine. I kept trying to remember when I had first heard about leukemia. Surely as a child, but for some reason, the most vivid memory of the devastating disease is from that 1981 show.
At the Center, Thomas remains—rightfully so—a revered and highly respected man, an icon, really, who set the bar mighty high. When I moved to Seattle in 1988, I had no idea that I was living only a few blocks from the very place where Thomas and his colleagues were making medical history; I was clueless to the existence of Don, a giant in his field who went on to win a Nobel Prize. And I was a journalist for the region’s largest newspaper! My only excuse for my ignorance is that the Center for years kept a very low profile and Don was never known for putting himself in the spotlight.
The Center has raised its profile over the years, but it hasn’t copped an attitude. It’s still called the “Hutch” by most people in the region, which is certainly a tribute to its Northwest modesty. And Dr. Thomas is Don to many, but I’m sure I would call him Dr. Thomas if I met him.
We have set up a link at our site to let people wish him well on his birthday. Reading through the postings, the impact of his work becomes immediate.
One writer had this to say about him: “I’m so grateful that he persevered through all the disillusionment, opposition, sadness and grief. Maintaining hope when the evidence weighs heavily toward hopelessness—maybe that defines a visionary. My daughter is four years post-transplant. She traveled to Seattle with no immune system, came home with a new one, and is now healthy, growing, thriving.”
Leukemia remains a formidable foe, and Thomas’ contemporaries continue their research to find new treatments and improve the existing ones. I’m sure even Thomas would agree that much remains to be done.
But as we near 1 million transplants around the world, all because of one man’s perseverance, we should feel fortunate to still have him around to say thanks. Dr. Thomas is not a character in a memorable scene, and his determination and compassion were not written into a script. His pioneering spirit was driven by one single factor above others: to give leukemia patients a chance for a future when none could even be contemplated.
By Ignacio Lobos