Winston Churchill once said, “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
I would like to share with you some thoughts Neil had on this subject.
I can still recall a conversation that Neil and I had in the summer of 2000. We were sitting in a bedroom of our father’s house in Michigan, having just returned from Henry Ford Hospital. There we had been given the news that Neil’s brain tumor had transformed. We both were trying to digest this–trying to grasp that this was likely the beginning of the end.
“It’s going to be okay”, Neil said.
He paused, and then began again, “When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t really understand what I was in for...like every other challenge I had ever faced, I thought that this too could be overcome.”
“The second time I was scared,” he said, referring to the time we learned that the tumor was growing again, only a year after the original diagnosis.
“But now...now I’ve come to terms with it. It’s okay.”
He continued after another pause. “I think a lot about our Uncle Samuel these days...thinking of him gives me strength.”
Samuel–our father’s brother–graduated first in his class in civil engineering at the University of Baghdad in 1950. The King of Iraq awarded Samuel a full scholarship to study at the University of Michigan in recognition of his outstanding academic achievement. Samuel lived modestly while working toward his Ph.D. at Michigan. Eventually, he was able to save enough money to bring his brother–our father–to the U.S. to join him at Michigan. We never got the opportunity to thank our uncle for the generosity he showed our father. He died of leukemia in 1959–shortly after earning his Ph.D.–and a decade before I was born.
Neil began again, “Although I never met Samuel, I feel very close to him...our lives are a direct result of his acts.” Neil went on, “we can never know the full impact that our lives might have. We didn’t even exist when our Uncle carefully saved his money to bring his brother over to this country, but in so doing, he changed our lives.”
During his commencement speech to the Harvard Medical School Class of 2000, Neil shared his thoughts on life. Noting the incredible sacrifices that had been made by the teachers, families and friends of each member of the graduating class, Neil asked how these caregivers could ever be repaid for their sacrifices. He believed we could find the answer by learning what their teachers and their families and their loved ones did for them. And by listening to their stories, a pattern would emerge. It is a pattern that encompasses much more than simply “us” and “them”.
As Neil said in his speech that day: “We are all really just the next chapter in a long, long story...we are all a gift of gratitude from the generation before us, to the generations before them.”
Thus, we thank those who sacrificed for us by the sacrifices that we ourselves make. Neil and I do get the chance to thank our Uncle after all; we thank him through the lives we lead. And what kind of life did Neil lead? Well, Neil’s resume speaks for itself. He graduated at the top of his class with degrees in electrical engineering from Michigan and Stanford, and graduated with honors from the H.S.T. program at Harvard. He worked as a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and as a head teaching assistant in the EE Dept at M.I.T. He published research both at Lawrence Livermore and at Harvard. He engaged in philanthropic activities such as working with underprivileged children in Appalachia and traveling to Vietnam to share medical supplies.
Though impressive, his accomplishments fail to capture the Neil we all knew and loved. Despite his numerous achievements, Neil always remained humble–during his 4 years at Michigan he only received one grade below an A: he actually gave himself a B in a freshman class in which the grades were self-prescribed. Neil was a friend to all–throughout his life he reached out to and befriended those whom others rejected. He was spiritual–he taught himself to meditate when he was only a teenager; this past year he became a Eucharistic Minister here at St. Mary’s. Neil was caring–he would call my wife Luz whenever he knew I was traveling, just to keep her company. He was selfless–he would console us when we were upset about his illness. Neil was a risk-taker–for my 29th birthday he surprised me with parachute jumps for each of us, thus risking two distinct forms of serious bodily injury (I wanted to clobber him). Of course, as many of you saw, Neil proved himself to be an accomplished thespian, playing a lead role in the H.M.S. 2nd year play and, in his spare time, he trained to be a certified massage therapist and a bartender. Finally, I remember Neil as a loving brother who, during our 31 years together, was always there for me. A few days after Neil was first diagnosed, he told me how lucky he felt that he was the one with the brain tumor, because to him, it would have been so much more painful if our roles had been reversed.
Anyone would be honored to lay claim to the aforementioned list of attributes and accomplishments, but for Neil this list is still incomplete. As Neil himself wrote, “as proud as I am of my achievements, none elicits the overwhelming pride I feel in knowing that I am a survivor.” As you all are aware, Neil was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November of 1997. Subsequent to that first diagnosis, Neil experienced countless seizures, underwent numerous surgeries and chemotherapies and was treated with radiation. The tumor, the seizures, the surgeries, the treatments and the endless meds inflicted an immeasurable toll on him. At times his short-term memory loss was so severe he couldn’t remember the names of housemates with whom he had lived for over two years. How did Neil deal with these seemingly insurmountable challenges? Neil didn’t simply “survive”–as he called it–he thrived, graduating with honors from medical school. Neil not only met each challenge with unyielding courage and bore his suffering with quiet dignity and grace, but, incredibly, he never gave up his quest to better the lives of those around him.
Neil’s unique form of memory loss led him to investigate whether verbal memory could be aided with other forms of memory. He discovered that pictures helped him recover some of his memory. He planned to pursue research in this area, hoping one day to create a vocabulary system based on pictures so that others with such memory problems could benefit.
At one point Neil had a pacemaker-like device implanted in his chest to help reduce the frequency of his seizures. Neil convinced the surgeon to alter his standard procedure and implant the device underneath his chest muscle, both to better protect, and to hide the device. The surgery was a success. More important to Neil, from then on the surgeon changed the procedure to adopt Neil’s approach. Of course, once implanted, Neil continually experimented with the device, alternating its rhythm to improve its efficacy and decrease its interference with daily life.
Neil’s unique experience as a medical student and a patient led him to uncover, as he put it, “a very un-intellectual cause” that would become a primary focus of his. As Neil emphasized in his commencement speech, compassion for patients should be a central part of medicine. Neil felt that, by formally incorporating compassion within the health care system, patients and their loved ones could receive positive feedback that the compassion they offer–which is often the only kind of care they really can provide-actually does make a difference. As a result of Neil’s passion for this cause, his friends and family have created the Neil Samuel Ghiso Foundation, dedicated to fostering compassionate care for chronically and terminally ill patients and their families through medical education and training.
It is a cruel irony that this brilliant scholar was afflicted with a disease that ruthlessly attacks a scholar’s most prized asset–his mind. But just as Neil so wisely understood that, when it comes to medicine, the most important aspect is “just caring for patients” so, too, does anyone who knew Neil realize that Neil’s most valuable quality wasn’t his exceptional mind, rather, it was his compassion for others. And that is something that the tumor was never able to take.
I would like to share one more story that Neil once shared with me. One day Neil was returning home on the T after a particularly grueling radiation session. Physically exhausted, Neil spotted a red scarf lying on the floor of the train near a group of school children and their teacher. He had to summon every ounce of energy he had just to bend down, pick up the scarf and hand it to the teacher. Neil vividly described the look of gratitude on the teacher’s face and recalled how that simple expression had made his entire day. That exchange may best capture the life that Neil led: he was truly happiest when he was helping others.
As the flag over the Medical School waves at half-mast in honor of Neil today, it is fitting that we commemorate his life on Valentine’s Day–a day to celebrate love. Losing Neil is a tragedy. Each and every day Neil improved the lives of everyone around him, including those of many that he never met, and, I am certain, even those of some who have yet to be born. But, despite his premature departure, did Neil live a full and productive life? Based on Neil’s own exceedingly high standards, the answer is clear.