Friday, November 21, 2008

Dr. Ron Davis, 1956-2008

The world just lost a truly incredible person this past month. Dr. Ron Davis, a lifelong public health crusader who was most recently president of the American Medical Association, lost a very courageous and public battle with pancreatic cancer at the young age of 52.

I first “met” Ron as part of a teleconference discussing a National Cancer Institute monograph that I was working on as a science writer, a publication series that he was once editor of, and was struck immediately by how high his standards were. Not knowing him beyond this phone call at first, I imagined him as a demanding perfectionist. Later, meeting and working with him in person for several days in Chicago (he is the tall man in the blue shirt on the left), I discovered these high standards were combined with a warm and accessible man who was described accurately by his colleagues as “the nicest person in the world.”

During that meeting last year, he shared with us that he had just been elected president of AMA, and while he probably had the smallest personal ego of any person ever to hold that office, his pride was unmistakable. He clearly relished the opportunity to have a soapbox for the next year as an advocate for the nation’s health, and used it skillfully.

For those of you who don’t know Dr. Davis’s legacy, he was one of the world’s foremost experts on tobacco control, who founded its main professional journal of the same name, and played a key role in public health interventions that have saved tens of millions of premature deaths. As AMA’s president, it was Dr. Davis who delivered their formal apology to black physicians for their past exclusion, tirelessly advocated for better public health (at one point delivering an hour-long lecture from on a treadmill), and set the medical industry further on a path toward universal health care coverage.

On a personal level, it was a treat to listen to someone with Ron’s rare blend of expertise and humility, and I cherished the opportunity. For example, one night at dinner at a Chicago bistro, I started having trouble breathing after eating my appetizer – an issue that would later be diagnosed as food allergies – and started to panic. I soon recovered my bearings again without anyone being the wiser, but remembered my only thought being, “Oh no – I am having a medical crisis and I am sitting next to the president of AMA. What do I do now?” But above all, it was a pleasure working with a truly great man.

Perhaps his greatest final act was making us all part of his illness and its lessons. He shared a very detailed summary of his treatment with friends and colleagues on a blog, encouraged people at risk to have genetic testing for this illness, and kept up a full schedule of speaking and publishing. As his illness advanced, he appeared before the AMA for one speech – now bald from chemotherapy – and spoke in a calm, clear voice that “Our existence, compared with the history of the earth, is quite fleeting. So whether we are ill or well, we should not waste any of that time before figuring out how to leave our mark on this planet.”

Just two weeks before his passing, he still tried to chair a medical conference in his native Detroit, and when the gravity of his condition prevented it, he dictated a message to his colleagues that read in part, “Some of you remember me as a young medical student just beginning my journey. That energetic medical student committed to public health is still a part of me ... You have designated me as a leader, but I tell you honestly that in many ways you have led me. Your concerns and your friendship have guided me through the years. Now I must complete my “circle of life” and go with God.” Vaya con Dios, Dr. Davis.

No comments: