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Medicine, Celebrity, and Responsibility: Sunday musings…1/17/2021

I made it! I’m on the B List! After years of describing myself as a C List celebrity with B List aspirations in my day job I have finally reached that milestone. Say it with me: “B List celebrity!” In all of my years behind the scenes in the original CrossFit community I never scaled such heights. C Lister all the way. But not my day job. B List big time baby!

Just kidding. There’s no “B” or “C” list in eye care. There’s only a very small group of “A” listers to whom we all turn for advice on all things professional. Some are young, others not so much. Men and women, with the next wave looking to be more women than men, actually. Still, though they may be celebrities in my work world, the rest of us look to them only for advice and guidance as eye doctors. At least as far as their public pronouncements go.

There’s a temptation here to veer of on a rant about celebrities elsewhere offering opinions of varying degrees of ignorance about subjects on which true experts struggle to find consensus, but I think I’ll leave that for another time. Or perhaps another, more talented or better informed writer. The “A” List celebrities in my work world are who they are almost uniformly because of an outsized degree of excellence in our tiny little sliver of medicine. They’ve by and large earned their stature and their slot on the list.

The temptation to take a shot at celebrities who are “A” List in the social sense, who are famous simply for their ability to be famous, is nearly irresistible. While I confess to a striking and complete ignorance of what it is that makes literally anything Kardashian worthy of being influential in any sphere whatsoever, this temptation I will also let pass. Well, maybe someone could help me understand Paris Hilton. Could she really do the DJ thing well enough to get that famous and make that much money from her fame, or was she just a slightly earlier evolutionary step in the Kardashian genus?

Nope. Where I’m going here is celebrity that grows from true excellence in some sphere where, having demonstrated excellent performance in some venue or another, one then goes on to become famous. I mean big time, “A” List, “Bo Knows” kind of famous. Face it, as much as my colleagues and I would love to have our outstanding performances in the OR recognized with the occasional listing on People Magazine’s Best Looking list or with a cover treatment in Vogue, “real” celebrity comes from excellence in much different venues. Excelling in the arts–movies, theater, literature–is surely a route to “A” List fame as is the rendering of awe-inspiring feats of athletic legerdemain in professional sports.

And if you somehow pull off being noteworthy in both? Well, there isn’t enough red carpet in the world to accommodate your footprints.

What’s got me thinking about this is some of my recent reading in the “auxiliary office”. I got caught up with the NYT Sunday Magazine “The Lives They Lived” Issue while also staying abreast of the comings and goings of my college buddies on our email list serv. As I’ve noted in the past we are a group of middle-aged men who attended a small liberal arts college in the Northeast who were there at some point along with the Class of ’79. As such we are encountering all of the typical illnesses and infirmities of every group of 60-somethings in America. Notably, we lost one of our most beloved members a little over a year ago to prostate cancer.

It was him about whom I was thinking as I read the very poignant essay written about Chadwick Boseman by Ismail Muhammad. Boseman, you may recall, is quite rightfully and properly famous as an actor of considerable talent, most recently in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Or, I sadly should say, was famous. Mr. Boseman passed away from colon cancer this past year, a diagnosis that he and his family managed to keep a closely guarded secret until his death. I found this fascinating. That an individual so very famous chose to keep such a dire illness a secret, and then managed to do just that.

Why would this surprise me? Why would I even care? Well, with the exception of a very tiny group of his closest friends, my college buddy did the same thing. Hardly famous in the “Hollywood A List” kind of way, he was very much a “Hollywood A List” kind of famous in our group. His passing has kind of “permissioned” the rest of us to talk more or less openly among ourselves about screening, testing, monitoring and treating cancer. One can’t help but remember Katie Couric after she lost her husband to colon cancer, famously submitting to a live-streamed colonoscopy in an effort to raise awareness of a cancer that can be better treated if caught earlier rather than later.

There are celebrities, both capital and lower case “c” celebrities, who choose to be very public about their diseases. I guess that either happens so frequently or is so widely publicized that it feels like almost every celebrity deals with their illnesses as if they were simply another opening night or playoff game. It’s rare that an “A List” celebrity takes the opposite route, the route taken by my college mate, dealing with illness as the private ordeal it is for the rest of humanity. Not gonna lie, on first blush one is left to wonder if doing so, at least for the very famous, is an opportunity to help that is lost.

That’s kind of where I thought I was heading when I sat down to start this a couple of hours ago. But as I’ve been ruminating on this, all the while chatting with close family members and as luck would have it several members of that college email group, I have come to a rather different conclusion. In the throes of the ordeal of illness one really owes nothing to anyone outside of those closest to you. And to them most of what they really want is for you to do nothing other than try to overcome. To survive so that they may continue to have you among them, living. If you do survive it’s still up to you whether your ordeal becomes part of your mission or not. Celebrity at large or only within your tiny sliver of the world, there exists no quid pro quo attached to your celebrity in this. No Owesies or obligations.

For the rest of us these passings actually are an opportunity, whether or not the departed wished for their celebrity to play such a role. Among my friendship groups in addition to my college email string we have all spoken more openly about what it means medically to be a middle-aged American male. Our friend’s passing has made some of us much more open with each other if it turns out we share not only the good but also a bit of the not so good. Mr. Boseman’s passing reminds me of my own family history; I’m sure it’s not completely accurate but it sure seems as if everyone in my Dad’s family either died with or from colon cancer. Sadly, relative youth (Boseman died at 43) does not inoculate you against genetics.

Very few ever become “A List” celebrities of any type, either world-wide owing to achievements in the arts or athletics, or in a smaller, more contained world like ophthalmology. Still, in our own tiny circles almost all of us are blessed to be on the “A List” for our families and our very close friends. Whether during the ordeal of illness or after its conclusion, each of us enjoys a tiny bit of, I dunno, let’s call it “micro-celebrity”, that will hopefully influence those we love to take just a tiny bit better care of themselves. I’m sure this is happening around the Boseman family, and it is certainly happening in a tiny corner of my buddy’s world.

Don’t let the passing of Mr. Boseman or my friend be in vain. Let their celebrity, whether writ large or small, be useful. Learn a bit about yourself and use that knowledge to do some very basic investigation of any risks you may face as you get older. Breast self-examination (look up the “Feel Your Boobies” foundation), PSA testing (Michael Miliken’s foundation), and the various tests for early colon cancer detection (I think Katie Couric has a foundation). Even with all of the strum und drang of our American health system it’s remarkably easy to get some pretty basic screening done.

Remember, even if you never show up on Entertainment Tonight or ESPN, in someone’s life, you are the biggest “A List” celebrity in their world.

I’ll see you next week…

One Response to “Medicine, Celebrity, and Responsibility: Sunday musings…1/17/2021”

  1. January 18th, 2021 at 7:10 pm

    Chris McKinley says:

    Thank you!!!

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