Mind On The Run: “Eulogy For My Favorite Professor”
(Musical Accompaniment: “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg)
“Kilimanjaro…is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai, ‘Ngaje Ngai,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
— The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway.
As such was I the leopard — the lone wolf — stationing myself in one of the rear pews of the church with the funeral mass already in progress, and not knowing what I was doing there or seeking or hoping to remember about the deceased: Doctor Greg Hoyson, a colleague from a pediatric practice I had worked at 12 years previously. Although notoriously tardy for social events, it was by intention that I entered late, hoping to isolate myself from my old physician coworkers, nurses, and office staff with whom I had rarely interacted in those 12 years.
I remember little of what the presiding reverend said, since the content of all funeral homilies is much the same; he spoke faster than Greg and faster than me — not a trivial accomplishment. But his words did kick off a thread of personal Greg Hoyson memoirs…
I first met Greg in 1982 after a warning from the academic moguls at the tertiary care children’s hospital that he was “a wild and crazy guy” — the real thing! After all, he did spend time in West Virginia and loved to sail on Cheat Lake. I was an Infectious Diseases Fellow eager to add another publication to my professional resumé by proving that the new antibiotic, Rocephin, was effective and safe in treating serious bacterial infections in children — an appropriate study for a serious guy! Greg was a lowly medical student and my research assistant and, while I was in it for fame and glory, he was in it for the money — some extra cash to help raise his growing family (both of our wives were expecting our first babies). He drew the blood while I pontificated to the study-parents about the superiority of the drug.
On this first encounter, a hair-raising issue confronted us: the young lad in the study vehemently refused the drawing of the mandated bloodwork and I had the urge to punch him! Greg came out of the woodwork.
“Hi little guy — how many girlfriends do you have?”
The lad dropped his tearful face and mumbled “None.”
“Nine! You have nine girlfriends? You must be superman!” Greg flashed. The young fellow blushed, smiled wryly, and begrudgingly allowed Greg to draw the blood while I ecstatically (and admittedly with some jealousy) collected my invaluable data like a miser collecting a petty debt.
By the time the study had been published in some obscure throw-away medical journal, I had fallen off the academic ladder and we had both joined the front lines of pediatric practice in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. We reminisced at community hospital staff meetings after the mundane agendas were completed, and we ran into each other during late night visits to the local emergency room, or worse, to the delivery room for middle-of-the-night emergency C-sections (not an uncommon venture in those halcyon days of high energy and growing families). In those years, we might cross paths at parish festivals, pushing our babies and toddlers in strollers as they dribbled their drinks all over their clothing and our wives hauled the diaper bags and the stuffed animals we had won (or rather bought).
Then a turning point for me, the excessive compulsive neurotic: for a stretch of seven years we worked at the same practice. It was then that I truly discovered the depth of Greg Hoyson’s pervasive humor.
“Seems as though a month ago, I was Beta-Chi
Never got high, Oh, I was a sorry guy.”
— from “Danny’s Song” by Kenny Loggins
As you see, unlike yours truly, all of Greg’s interactions were laced with humor — a trait most of the rest of us were too tentative or too puritanical to publically display. In most other ways, we were comparable — hyperkinetic, fast talkers, insistent on removing every bit of ear wax to visualize the ear drum regardless of the consequences to our nerves and our reputations. In spite of rare situations of high duress where we had to verbally release the toxic vapors from our spleens, we collaborated to provide a one-two punch to keep the practice prospering during the instability adulterating the practice of medicine in the city at that time.
Greg’s high spirit and unrelenting wit made him nearly immune from criticism and little-mindedness. All the parents loved him because he mesmerized their kids with his humor. All of the office staff loved him because he never let them stop laughing. To paraphrase one of his legendary lectures:
“The first time a kid swallows a coin, you must perform X-rays and vigilantly watch for its passage in the stool;
The second time, you watch for a while for its passage in the stool;
The third time, you take the money out of his allowance!”
When the practice and I eventually departed, I had retained seven years of jokes and antics in my repertoire with which to move forward. I would like to believe that Greg’s humor had been insidiously, albeit artificially, incorporated into my DNA. No need to apply as a hard luck case to Monster’s Incorporated University.
No longer so serious and sorry, I pledged to never allow an office visit to transpire without a successful or unsuccessful attempt at laughter or idiocy.
Greg worked the daily grind right up to the weeks prior to his death. The last time we physically crossed paths was on morning nursery rounds at Magee. I commented on how energetic he looked in spite of his adversity. “One moment you’re pushing you kids around in strollers — then you blink, and you’re pushing up your bank account to pay for their medical school tuition,” we commiserated.
“And Rocephin keeps saving the world!” I added.
As the pews emptied out after the completion of the solemn service, I began to encounter the old friends I had originally attempted to avoid. As enough of us congregated in the vestibule, a dinner party of sorts commenced — with the dinner being tender recollections of things past and social updates. Greg’s oldest daughter was expecting the family’s first grandchild in the upcoming months. Everybody had aged gracefully, and laughter and humor pervaded the gathering — the deceased would not have had it any other way. Even the leopard — the lone wolf — had morphed into a hyena.
Do we doubt that the practice of pediatrics has itself morphed in the 21st century? Have clinical guidelines mandated that the science of medicine has replaced its art? Has the computer replaced the common touch? I witness my contemporaries expire, retire, or just see the situation as dire, with some of us just hanging on by a thread, having little to sustain us but the lessons in life we learned from our favorite professors.
“You’ve really made the grade…
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here am I sitting in a tin can far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”
— from “Space Oddity” by the late David Bowie
Thanks for the ride, Professor Hoyson — it was real! I hope I earned a passing grade. If not, please let me know if you offer extra credit.
PS: This story is dedicated to Baby Nora, Greg’s granddaughter, who was born on January 29th. May his blood run through her instruments and his song be in her soul — for his humor has already been incorporated into her DNA.