Thursday, January 24, 2008


As my father slowly but surely keeps slipping away, I have been thinking a lot about death and those friends and relatives who have recently left this life. Dying is a natural event and all of us will experience it. Most of us would like to go quickly when the time comes, yet there are those who hold human life so sacred that they try to prolong it at all costs. In the system like ours, savings of a lifetime can be spent on a few weeks of additional time. Back home in Scandinavia medical care is essentially free and the cost is obviously not a worry. Indeed there are, even in my home town's main hospital, a number of very sick and/or old people hooked to machines that keep them alive. Most often this happens due to lack of a living will. Families are reluctant or afraid to make a sensible and humane decision, perhaps because they haven't had the courage to talk to the patient earlier to find out in time what his/her wish would be. I don't think anyone would like to go on living attached to artificial life support system, knowing there was no hope. Many of us have pets that are really dear to us. The sign of our ultimate love and compassion for these friends is to make sure they don't suffer unnecessarily. Why would we treat the dying humans differently? Wouldn't the quality and living free of pain matter more than an extra two weeks of suffering? Doctors are often afraid of writing prescriptions for potent opiates for fear of turning patients into addicts, or being singled out by the system for creating junkies. Clearly an oncologist, a surgeon or a pain specialist will have to dispense a lot more of these scripts than a family doctor, not to mention a dermatologist. Yet even in an advanced system like my native Finland has, my aunt was given a low dose tramadol regimen for her pain after she was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. I was shaking my head as I was taking twice the amount for my own chronic pain. A former health care worker, she started self-medicating with large amounts of ibuprofen which gave her considerably better relief. It wasn't until she was taken to the hospital near the end of the four or five months when she finally was given morphine. I just hope that her final days were relatively comfortable.

For a long time I visited a Seattle-based pain specialist, Dr. Anders Sola. Initially I was sent to him by my rheumatologist as a couple months of physiotherapy couldn't help my frozen shoulders, a condition obviously caused or at least worsened by work environment. Dr. Sola was one of those rare individuals who had the ability to think outside the box. Although he had discovered during the Korean War that injecting saline solution worked better and gave longer relief than local anesthetics, the initial fame wore off and he became somewhat of an outcast in the medical society. Long before it became fashionable, he studied acupuncture and developed his own style of it. With these needles he was able to cure my shoulders completely in two weeks. Dr. Sola was among the first group of doctors that were allowed to visit China after the Cultural Revolution. We became friends and spent many hours discussing medicine, our lives, art, philosophy and other topics. His mother was a first cousin to the great painter Edvard Munch. After the artist's death nobody wanted to touch his paintings, as he had always been a black sheep in the deeply evangelical family. Often I could barely drag myself to the doctor's office, yet a little later I'd walk away feeling great. In time the needles were put aside and a small laser was introduced instead. Used on trigger points it worked as well, often causing me to sweat profusely which he considered a good sign. There was usually Hawaiian music playing in the background and the patients were an interesting group, many of whom the good doctor introduced me to. I especially remember a truly big Native chief from Alaska who came down for treatments every so often. As the medical building was about to be closed, to make space for a new part of Northgate shopping mall, Anders Sola decided it was time to retire. I'm sure all his patients were sad and kind of lost as to where to turn to help. I myself went to see a Chinese lady whom Dr. Sola had recommended. However, I never felt at ease at her practice nor got the same relief. I did talk to the dear doctor a number of times over the phone, but not in the last three years or so. Finally last week I started searching on the internet and found a news item in the Idaho Statesman, telling of the doctor's death in that state just this past August, three months after the passing of his wife. I had never asked him his age and was surprised that he had reached 88. His bright mind was that of a much younger person.

A little more than two weeks ago we received an email telling of the death of Virginia Katims, the widow of the renowned violist and conductor Milton Katims. We knew that she was in ill health and frail, and had visited her in a home where we played a small recital for her and other music-loving occupants. Although her openness irritated many, I found it refreshing and always greatly enjoyed her company. She had no trouble telling me that I had gained too much weight, although I didn't explain to her why. After I weaned myself off prednisone, those over 30 pounds were lost rather rapidly and she was pleased by what she saw. I much preferred her truthfulness to the phoniness many others exhibit. She probably alienated some donors years ago, but if she didn't like something, she would tell it to your face, instead of pretending and speaking ill of you behind your back. Milton and Virginia shared an amazingly long lifetime of music together. I will miss them both.

A personal shocker came in the form of a phone message not long after. One of my wife's sisters had just learned from a nephew that their father John Kransberg had died in Florida, four months ago in September. His widow hadn't thought it necessary to notify any of his children. After divorcing his wife of 37 years when they were to move to Los Angeles from Beverly, Massachusetts, in order for my wife to study with Heifetz, he rushed to marry his Swedish masseuse. Wife number two didn't encourage a close relationship with any of the four daughters, least of all the young one still living with her mother. My wife flew to see her father in the Florida Keys with our little firstborn, but the stepmother made the visit intolerable. I never met my father-in-law in person, only spoke to him over the phone once. He did call here after learning about the accident that took my mother-in-law's life three years ago and told Marjorie that he still loved her mother. Perhaps the call was overheard as the next attempt to talk was cut short. The eldest of the sisters lived not that far and managed to have a relationship. However, after she was diagnosed with cancer and was given only a couple months to live, the father cut off all communications with her and didn't even show up at her funeral. What a strange man he had become. My wife had said her good-byes to him over those many years, so although the news must have made her sad, it wasn't the kind of a loss it would have been under different circumstances. Our society encourages people to dissolve their marriages instead of working differences out, claiming it is for the children's best. At least I beg to differ. The individuals may get their lives in order again, but the children will suffer, even in the most ideal of situations.

May the souls of all these people rest in peace, my father-in-law included. At least he helped to produce a wonderful wife for me, for which I'm eternally grateful.

Discovery Park, Seattle
Photo by Talvi 1/2008