The life of a doctor-poet who changed countless lives
When I first arrived in Atlanta a quarter century ago I was befriended by John Stone, cardiologist, teacher, and poet, who from 1969 until his death on November 6 was one of the most beloved doctors and teachers in the world of Atlanta medicine. He died of cancer at the too-young age of 72,
leaving a loving wife, two strapping, smart, and dedicated doctor-sons, two beautiful, brilliant grandchildren, countless students practicing medicine, poetry, or both, and a host of friends whose lives were irrevocably touched and changed for the better by his healing voice and hands.
I was reminded yesterday, when I attended a memorial service for John at our university, of all he gave to medicine, literature, and life. He was a lapsed Presbyterian from Jackson, Mississippi, I a lapsed Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, but we fell into a comfortable friendship from day one, mainly because of the warmth and largeness of his heart.
On one of my early visits he was touring me around in his beat-up old car and got so excited about a poem he was talking about that he pulled over to the side of the road, opened the trunk, got it out of his briefcase, and read it aloud to me while the traffic whizzed past. When I brought the family down, John mobilized all of Emory medicine to take care of our baby son's earache.
All he did, he did with energy and passion. He helped found the first Emergency Medicine residency in Atlanta and for many years directed it and the Emergency Ward at Grady Hospital, a refuge for the poorest sick people in Georgia and beyond. Those patients he couldn't take care of himself were cared for by doctors John had taught.
After that, when he became Director of Admissions for the medical school, he continued as an attending physician on the wards two months a year, teaching the intimate mysteries of a stuttering, crashing, or failing heart, and the intricacies of those elegant, rhythmic, sometime not-so-rhythmic squiggles on countless electrocardiograms. But always the suffering person on the other side of the squiggles was uppermost in his mind, and he taught generations of students never to lose sight of that person.
He loved the tremendous advances in medicine he lived through, and stood in awe of them even as he sometimes struggled to stay on top of increasingly complex technology. In a retrospective poem about his doctor-father's death–from a heart attack, at 45–he listed the advances his father missed that might well have saved his life: the respirator, the clot-dissolving emergency enzyme infusions, the whole science of interventional cardiology with its catheters and balloons and stents, the statins, and indeed the intensive care ward itself, with all the specially trained nurses and doctors to manage it. John had lost his much-loved father, but he helped save countless others, and he knew that his father could have wanted no better memorial.
Somehow, as if with his left hand, he held a clinic every Tuesday afternoon for decades, where children with heart defects but no insurance got his care for free. Two doctors I mentioned it to yesterday–one of them his younger son, Jim–had, like me, spent one of those afternoons with him. He wasn't a specialist in pediatric heart defects, but he was a specialist in caring, and he was all those children needed and more.
The memorial service was just about perfect, and John would have loved it. His own sons read his poetry about them, as did his stunningly poised granddaughter and grandson, in turn, his poems for them.
A beloved literary colleague captured his smile, the twinkle in his eye, the rapture in which he listened to music or composed a poem, and the countless "Glory Be!"s with which he punctuated his life, in response to everything from a Bach cantata to a pretty woman passing by to a patient, against all odds, brought back from the dead.
A well-known physician and medical educator lost his composure for a moment or two when talking about how John had brought him up into his profession. And Emory's great president during John's heyday-James Laney, a man of great faith and vision-officiated and reflected on John's life and work; Jim Laney, the Marine captain and chaplain on the ground in the Korean War, later theology dean and, after his presidency, our first ambassador to Korea who actually spoke Korean-eulogizing John Stone, his mirror image in medicine, literature, and a secular but equally strong faith.
John firmly believed that young doctors could be humanized by studying the humanities, and a course on literature and medicine met in his home one evening a week-Kafka's story "The Country Doctor," Dr. Chekhov's fiction, and of course the poems of his beloved Dr. William Carlos Williams along with those of "Emily," as he always fondly called the reclusive, powerful poet of Amherst, were the staples. But it was John's rich voice with its courtly southern music, expressing from the depths of his life the clinical experience so compelling to doctors-in-training that made all the difference for his mesmerized classes.
His poems about his sons and grandchildren, read by them at the memorial, echoed his poems about his own father, read by fellow writer Ferrol Sams. One had his father often singing "Go Down Moses" in the shower, and as it ended, a beautiful bass voice from the balcony that sounded like Paul Robeson intoned hauntingly, "When Israel was in Egypt land…let my people go. Oppressed so hard they could not stand…let my people go." It brought back the sad, then hopeful, then optimistic history of the south in which John had lived his life, and the large number of the people he had cared for who were African-Americans.
And when the well-known physician was reading the heartfelt peroration of his eulogy, a long, plaintive siren sounded outside the stately church, going on and on as if to remind us of how many sirens had serenaded and speeded desperate, frightened people on their journey into John's able hands.
He was blessed with the love of two wonderful women in his life, Lu, who passed away in 1991, and Mae, who helped him to live and love life again after that first devastating loss. Lu was with him for decades and gave him two sons, along with immense support and love. Mae, who became part of the family, was with him until the end and gave him all her love. Neither allowed him to take himself too seriously, although I'm guessing he wouldn't have done that anyway.
Luckily, he recorded much of his life in poems and essays. His poems are not intellectual, show-off-y and opaque, always rejecting rhyme and meter. If you like the simple, elegant lines of Dr. William and Emily, you will like John Stone's. If he ever shows off anything, it is his sense of humor and his love of "the mercies of the word." The most erudite he got was a poem about Gaudeamus igitur, the great song that says, "after the joys of youth, after the pains of age, we inhabit earth." His poem about it is a celebration of life, and it has been read at many medical school graduation ceremonies.
As for his humor, in one poem he describes getting caught in a highway lane behind a truck with the sign, "PROGRESS CASKETS, ARTHUR, ILLINOIS" on its rear end. He finally gets out from behind it, thinking, "A casket/may be progress up in Arthur/but it's thought of/down here/as a setback." Lighthearted Southern chauvinism, acknowledgment of his fear of death, and a good hearty laugh about it-all in a few smart lines.
Death does haunt many of his poems, but it is always a graceful ghost. One of his simplest and loveliest poems just says, "Death,"
I have seen come on
slowly as rust
or suddenly as when
finds the doorknob
come loose in his hand
John's death first came slowly as rust, so slowly he didn't know of his cancer for months. Then it came on more like a smoldering fire that burned faster and finally went out. Those who were with him said he was not in pain, that he was mostly lucid and even funny until the end.
He was just past threescore and ten, but these days that seems, well, not enough. It's a huge loss for those who knew and loved him, and for a great many who didn't, but who benefited indirectly from all he did, or who might yet have been graced by one of his many gifts. Of course, his lovely, lively poems will always be here for us, as will his descendants both genetic and non-. But as for his exceptional range of heart and mind, his knowledge, skill, and grace, his generous, slightly mischievous smile, and that twinkle in his eye… We won't see his like again.