The Fan, the Physician and the Undertaker
It’s 1939, and it has just come in over the wires that Lou Gehrig, the Iron Man of Baseball, has been diagnosed with A.L.S. (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a universally fatal, degenerative, neurological disease.
The People react:
The first and most widely exhibited response is on the part of the typical, die-hard, Yankees’ fan. He is of the type that simply cannot believe the news. He hears the news, including words like “fatal” and “death,” but he tucks them quickly away into a space somewhere in the back of his head to seek shelter behind the many fantastic memories that the Yankee Great brought to him through the radio and newspapers for all those many years...the home runs, the doubles, the triples, the clutch hits.
The Fan doesn’t have the slightest idea what A.L.S. stands for, and he doesn’t really care. After all, he lives in the Twentieth Century, doesn’t he? “Haven’t doctors nearly eradicated smallpox and aren’t they finding cures for new diseases everyday? What about the Mayo Brothers? They’re probably working on a cure for A.B.S. right now!”
How ridiculous, the idea that “this A.B.S disease thing” could disrupt the life of excitement that Lou Gehrig has produced for him, his friends and so many others like him, the vicarious thrills, the elation they’ve all felt!
A second and different response comes from the man we can only know here as “The Physician.” He makes up a much smaller segment of society. He too is a baseball fan although a somewhat better educated one. He understands the fatal nature of the great slugger’s ailment. Unlike the typical fan in the stands, however, his sentiments are based a bit more on science rather than on pure hope. Sure, he has hope, too. A cure could be right around the corner. The pace of medical research is rapid and ongoing, and he knows this. His enthusiasm that such a cure is forthcoming is a little bit more reserved, however. Even though he too doesn’t look forward to missing Lou Gehrig’s long home runs in the late innings, he understands that medical miracles are rare occurrences in life. Still, he puts on his white coat and answers questions from the thousands of expectant and hopeful fans like the first one mentioned in our tale.
He says things like, “We’re doing everything that we can,” and “If there is a cure, we’ll find it!” In his heart of hearts, he knows that there is no cure and that the chance of finding one is about as remote as he, himself, getting to bat in the World Series, but still, he says such things over and over again with the deepest and most solemn conviction. Many, many fans smile and feel better in response. And somewhere, in the deepest recesses of his heart, the Physician begins to believe ever so slightly that perhaps he may just be right.
The last man in our story is not a medical man as all. If medicine could be considered the oldest profession, then his might be considered the second oldest. He too is a Yankees’ fan, but, as mentioned, not a physician or even a scientist. He presents himself to the Yankee faithful crowd as an unwelcome visage, the one character of this story that all wish to shun. Even though he calls himself a Yankees’ fan, few “true” Yankees’ fans can believe it to be so.
He is the undertaker. He understands death and that disease can cause death. While others ignore the words “fatal” or “terminal,” he hears them. They cause him no joy, especially when they are associated with the name of one of the greatest Yankee sluggers of all time. But his purpose in this sad scene is not meant to be a joy-filled one, but rather, a useful one. On some deeper, although sad level, like the spirit of life itself, perhaps, he understands this.
When the great slugger finally breathes his last, someone will have to carry his body away and lay it on a hard stone table and prepare it for burial. It is a job that, very simply, will need to be done.
The undertaker is universally shunned by all. The fans curse him. The physician chastises him for the morbid nature of his inquiries. He, the undertaker himself, does not smile much. He simply does what he does. He makes his living doing it, but it does have its sad moments and undeniably, this is one of the saddest that he will experience, to make the measurements to fit the coffin of the great Lou Gehrig.
“Away with you Undertaker!” they shout and feel in their hearts. “Physician! Make him go away. Make him leave us alone. Surely you must be able to find a cure for this dreaded disease! Can you? Answer us!”
“I will try,” responds the pressed man, “I will do all I can.”
“You must do better than try!” they shout back, “You must save him! Can you do it?”
His face sees the size of the crowd, and in a moment of brief, perhaps fear-inspired elation, his eyes brighten. He smiles, if only weakly. “I can,” he says. Then, a bit stronger, “I can! Away with you undertaker!”
The Crowd cheers.
The undertaker places his business card quietly on the physician’s desk and walks slowly away amidst hisses, howls and boos from legions of Yankee faithful. The physician continues to chastise him, as he walks slowly out of the room in his lonely, knowing way. No one in the jeering crowd notices as the strained doctor gently and quickly picks the card up from the table and silently slips it into his breast pocket.
And so our little tale ends. Or does it? How different are you, dear reader, from the loyal Yankees’ fan? And how different is the great Lou Gehrig from the Great Dollar Standard that has existed, thrilled and amazed the world for all these decades? All the admiration, the good times it has brought to so many in the good old U.S. of A. and other places is finally dying, diseased beyond repair, degenerating into slow malfunction and death, regardless of the hope so many continue to have and share.
The undertaker stands at the door, his look solemn, his news not of the type most would like to hear, but his understanding much more complete.
Who desires to root for the undertaker? “No one,” I say. Much better to be the Yankees’ Fan or the hopeful Physician. Which would you like to be? I can’t say that I would want to make my living dressing and preparing the dead.
Now I must ask you, however, whose prospects are the most assured involving this unfortunate situation? Who oversees an endeavor that ultimately will be necessary and must be successful. I, like you, know who I would like to be, but the question now is not what I would like to be, but what I need to be or should be. When the Iron Horse of Baseball, Lou Gehrig, or the Iron Horse of Financial Transactions, the U.S. Dollar, is fatally diseased, you must be the Undertaker.
Quietly place your business card on the table and walk out of the room solemnly, without fanfare or show. Quietly hold your undertaker’s savings, silver and gold: things that understand death and time. Sit patiently in your office waiting, waiting for the phone call that must come when the Iron Horse has finally died.
Dr. Alan Lemerande Jr., M.D.
Dr. Al Lemerande is an emergency room physician, gold investor and freelance writer, and he hopes you are having a great day.