Monday, August 3, 2015

The Precious Life of Dr. Carolyn Kaelin: The Real News Today

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  --Mary Oliver

"Zeitgeist" is a German word meaning, "the spirit of the age or the current times": what's on folks' hearts and minds at any given moment in cultural history.  Zeitgeist is what people are talking about right now around the water cooler, at the coffee shop. It’s the story trending on Twitter or Facebook or, a “must read” post making digital rounds.  Last week's Zeitgeist moment might have been the tale about a dentist from Minnesota who shot and killed a lion. Or remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Zeitgeist. For a few weeks last summer it was all people posted about, tweeted about, shared about.

So it was with surprise I opened my browser to the page this morning and saw that the most viewed article of the day, our zeitgeist, wasn't the latest overblown lamentations concerning "Deflategate".  Wasn't another column carping about the Boston Red Sox or a breathless report about a possible shark sighting off the Cape. Instead thousands of us were reading and sharing a real story about a real person whose one precious life made a huge difference in the lives of so many others: Doctor Carolyn M. Kaelin. She died on July 28th after a twelve year struggle against breast and brain cancer.

Her story. She was a surgeon, loving wife and caring Mom to two kids, the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a post she accepted at the age of 34, in 1995. In a 1999 Globe story, she spoke of her life's work and call to be a doctor for cancer patients. “...with a breast cancer patient, once you care for them, you care for them for’s really hard–you get to know these patients and their families...become emotionally attached. There are days where we’re calling back patient after patient with not very good news from their biopsies.” The story continues: "If a prognosis was particularly poor, [Kaelin] would explain that, 'at least they may have some time, and can choose to use that time however they wish.'”

The tragic twist to the story is that in 2003, Kaelin discovered her own cancerous lump after a training bicycle ride for the Pan Mass Challenge (PMC).  She rode multiple times in the PMC, the largest athletic fundraiser in the world. Just last weekend 6,000 riders (myself among them), raised $45 million for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber. That Kaelin passed away just four days before the PMC is heartbreaking.   

Zeitgeist. Convergence. Synchronicity.

So after reading about Kaelin's one great life, good life, the meaningful life that she truly lived in her fifty four years on this earth, my hope this day is a simple one. I pray that Kaelin's story of courage and commitment, of a lived live in service to others, won't quickly fade away, won't get lost in the hyper quick news cycle, tales found today but lost tomorrow. Instead, what if Kaelin's story actually inspired some of us to consider, reconsider, the lives that we are living this day, our one wild and precious life, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver?

I'm 54, the same age as Kaelin. Her obituary makes me think about the quality of the life I live, how well I am using the life that God has gifted to me. It makes me ponder how a random "click" on my DNA strand to one side rather the other, might decide if I have cancer or not, if my days left on this earth are long or short. Kaelin's story reminds us all as mortals that life is finally precious and unpredictable, wild and beautiful, chaotic and a conundrum.  We don't get to choose the end game.  We do get to choose just what we do before we get to the end of the ride called human life.

So here's some good news, God's true zeitgeist and not just for today but for every day that we get to live and breathe and feel our hearts beat in our chests.  As Kaelin so presciently said, we still have some time and so we can choose to use that time however we wish.  We can live for ourselves alone or we can dedicate a part of life to helping others.  We can get caught up in the cultural backwash of the daily news. Is Tom Brady guilty? What did Donald Trump say today? Or we can seek out the truly good news and then let it inspire and shape our lives.  We can focus on all the bad in the world or we can read about a person like Doctor Kaelin and then be moved to be more like her.

That's the news this day and I'm not going to turn the page.  Thank you Doctor Kaelin, for your one wild and precious life.




  1. Thank you for writing a beautiful article about a lady many of us call our own.. We the class of Indian Hills '79 call her ours for 12 years. From grammar school through High School. She was the beautiful, quiet girl in class. Her close friends know her well. She had a smile for everyone. At our 30th Class reunion in 2009, she came with "some trepidation" as she wrote in a note to me afterwards. But what she didn't know is that she touched so many at that event. Spent time with many talking (I was one of those lucky). While we were decorating, she came in enthusiastically thanking us organizers for arranging the event.
    When we heard the news of her passing, we each were devastated. Our class had another empty chair at the next reunion. She was too ill to attend the 35th reunion and was missed.
    We, the class of 1979, have organized a team in Carolyn's honor for the Komen Race for the Cure in Manhattan on September 13th.
    " ’79 Braves for Carolyn Kaelin" is the name of our team. Please consider making a donation. We honor Carolyn by doing this.

  2. Kathy--thanks for letting me know more about your community and Carolyn. She had lots of connections and was the classmate at Smith College of two of my best friends. Small world. Prayers your way....