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Doctor Dying Of Cancer… Passing Time With A Catholic Physician As He Awaits Stepping Into Eternity

September 15, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By DEXTER DUGGAN

PHOENIX — Words we think of in the context of a traditional marriage ceremony — “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…from this day forward until death do us part” — are words that actually apply to other acquaintances we make in life as well, although in differing degrees than having them as spouses.
In October 2016 a longtime pro-life physician here who did some writing and who admired my writing in The Wanderer got in touch with me for the first time through a mutual acquaintance. He was James Asher, D.O., a military veteran and officer of the Catholic Medical Association’s guild in Phoenix.
We started getting together to eat and to attend meetings of the guild. Energetic and sturdily built in his 70s, he wished that such Catholic guilds would prosper around the nation. A year later, in November 2017, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Shortly before he went into surgery, I saw what it really meant to have the yellow skin of jaundice. I visited him in the hospital as he began a prolonged and successful recovery.
He and his wife, Rosie, married more than a half-century, had seven adult children and more than a dozen grandchildren. It was a full house indeed in north Phoenix for Thanksgiving the following year, in 2018, as Jim was returning to a more normal life.
Jim had asked me to read a book manuscript he was working on, Searching for A Few Good Men, and he began writing some articles for The Wanderer. As it turned out, unfortunately, some of them were to be about the reoccurrence of the cancer in late 2020 and his physical decline and expected death.
These three articles appeared under the standing headline “Thoughts on My Summons — A Retired Catholic Physician Contemplates Death.” They were published in the hardcopy Wanderer on December 10, 2020 (p. 4B), February 11, 2021 (p. 8A), and April 22, 2021 (p. 8B).
They’re worth rereading for his thoughts on mortality and religion. He isn’t a natural pessimist, but Jim hasn’t been asking God to let him live to 100 years of age, nor is imploring for a miraculous recovery. His email is Grampa6101@gmail.com.
Jim said the time would arrive when I would have to write the next article for him, when he could not. That time is here.
When I visited his home for lunch in July — wife Rosie always has some tasty sandwiches on hand — he sat in a chair in the kitchen. When I stopped by around noonish in August and September, he was weaker, lying in a recliner bed in his sunny bedroom, with a colorful Lady of Guadalupe blanket draped on him.
Twice this year Jim also had to go to the hospital to relieve the serious pain of liver abscesses, plus Rosie had to recover from a broken femur. The liver problem was so bad, “I was willing to lay there and let death come because I wanted the pain over so badly,” but hospital treatment provided great relief.
On August 21 Jim told me that an oncologist at the hospital recently hugged him goodbye, “but I don’t think I’m ready to check out yet.” Looking at himself with the experienced eye of a physician, Jim said that eventually his consuming hydration will have to stop because it won’t be doing any good, and he’ll get “more and more lethargy. . . .
“As long as I’m having some quality of life . . . then I imagine I’ll stick around,” he said.
When he does stop drinking, Jim said, he imagines people will be doing “a lot of yelling, ‘Drink and drink and drink’,” but he’d reply he can’t. (That was the same thing I saw when my elderly mother died, after I kept holding a straw to her lips in an assisted-living home.)
“I’m kind of anxious to get it over with,” Jim said.
“I like to be able to go to Holy Communion every day,” but a parish Eucharistic minister came by once a week, Jim said in August. However, when I returned on September 4, he was receiving hospice care, which meant a priest associated with hospice stopped by once a week, giving Jim a total of two weekly Eucharists.
Although he hadn’t had any unusual spiritual experiences like visits from deceased relatives, Jim said he had “vivid dreams” which he either couldn’t recall upon awakening or forgot after he awoke because he didn’t write them down. “But they weren’t anxiety-provoking or anything like that. . . . I haven’t met George Washington.”
As for his family, “I think they’re trying to have a stiff upper lip, and they’re very helpful to me, constantly inspiring” about his health.
Even after death, Jim thinks he’ll have his family in mind. He has reflected on what will change. “I feel like I’ll still be integral to their lives. ‘Sure, you can call on Dad’” with requests.
Does he believe he’ll miss his family? “I don’t think so. I think I’ll be immersed with things.”
Reading he has done suggests there’s more communication with the living on Earth while a soul still is in Purgatory, Jim says, and needs help like being prayed for.
He recalls a story in a book published around 1899 where a father in Purgatory appears to his son and asks for prayers. When the son replies, “I pray for you every day,” the father says, “It’s not efficacious. You’re in a state of mortal sin.”
People “tell me all the time” they offer prayers for him, Jim said, describing himself as “an 80-year-old guy who’s dying, a happy, peaceful death. I’m not praying for any miracles.”
Jim plans to have “a monastery coffin” and be buried at a veterans’ cemetery here. He asked a son “to shop around a bit” for funeral preparations. “I can’t see spending thousands on a funeral.”
He doesn’t want people to keep coming back to his grave. “Just the first time. They’ll know I’m dead and they pray for my soul.”
Standing by the recliner, Rosie said, “Maybe September, maybe October, maybe November. In God’s time. But I’m glad I’m already recovered” from her broken femur.
When I returned two weeks later, on September 4, Jim was looking better, watching television at the foot of the recliner bed as I arrived. Rosie says he was up that morning, typing and checking his emails.
Rosie has been to the deli to get us sandwiches. Jim had thought he’ll have only a bite or two of his pastrami and French fries, but he eats half of each of these. “I did myself proud,” he says, adding, “I really haven’t eaten much for the last few days.” What does he eat? “A bite of this and a bite of that.”
He eats all the whipped cream off a slice of pie but less than half of the slice itself. “I didn’t like the flavor.” It’s supposed to be rhubarb but he thinks it’s strawberry. A container of coconut water is on his tray, which, he said, is good because it’s high in potassium, which he needs.
“I have a paralytic condition in my stomach” in which the food doesn’t move along as it’s supposed to, leading to a bloated feeling, Jim says.
Jim watches some of the daily Masses from Toronto on YouTube, which leads him into prayer. “Prayer is getting difficult” because he can’t focus so much. “I have a lot of physical disability right now. I’m weak, hard to hold my head up….Frankly, I want to get through this thing. I want to get it over with.”
He adds later on September 4, “I find waiting is the biggest drag. . . . It’s not like I’m active in the world doing all kinds of things. . . .
“I would like my suffering to do some good, but I’m not pushing to suffer. Suffering hurts. My lifelong impatience has just been wanting to get things over with. . . . You can’t just lie here in bed and think this is a great life. . . .
“What was in that pie?” Jim keeps wondering because it didn’t taste like rhubarb.
Do a pat on the back in this article for Americare Hospice, Jim says, a Catholic service approved by Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted. It provides Jim assistance here at home.
Considering the circumstances, I truthfully tell Jim he’s looking good. “Looks aren’t everything,” he replies.
In his article about expected death in the December 10, 2020, Wanderer, physician Jim spoke with the experience of what happens to patients like himself:
“In the movies they always show the dying person talking to everyone around the bed, then gradually dying — like in the space of five minutes. Not been my experience with patients like me. More like dying by millimeters. Little by little by c’mon let’s get this over with. Gradual entry into coma with possible brief periods of lucidity, more coma, more death watch, on and on. Eventually and finally it happens, and everyone is relieved.”
But Jim also recalled an account by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, who “talks about a dying relative who was in a semi-coma, but obviously engaged in an animated conversation. When he opened his eyes and was asked whom he was talking to, he responded, ‘Why, the angels.’ Sometime later he opened his eyes again and asked, ‘Is it OK if I go now?’ Everyone assured him that it was fine if that was what he wanted. He smiled, closed his eyes, and died shortly after.”
Before he knew about his cancer returning, Jim wrote in the March 26, 2020, Wanderer about modern death while the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic had people worried:
“Modern-day people, immersed in a Godless culture, tend to react with shock, disbelief, and unbridled grieving. How could it be that they have a terminal illness or that a loved one has died? Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance — has it always been like this?
“One could wonder if there was such shock, disbelief, and grief in the fourteenth century. Or rather, was there more of a quiet and relatively peaceful resignation like Job’s, that the Lord had given, the Lord had taken away, and blessed be the name of the Lord — His will be done.
“We all, then and now, are in God’s hands. None of what swirls around us — plague, or otherwise — happens without His keen awareness. If we do not survive whatever it is, He is there with welcoming arms. May we attain the spiritual maturity of our ancestors, contented with the life we’ve had and with a happy accommodation of our sooner or later mortality.”

Hopes To Help

In this last of his articles, Jim wrote on April 22, 2021:
“I’ve wondered if some afternoon or early morning I’ll just ‘fly away’ or if the trip is going to be involved, complicated, or painful and more than simply laying down my head and closing my eyes for the last time. I keep going back to the Spartan soldiers who needn’t concern themselves about the water temperature if they are required to march through the river anyway.
“Someday anyway and one way or another, I’ll be on the other side of this thing, I hope looking down benignly on the rest of humanity. I hope I can be of help.”

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