I’d like to begin this look back at 2013 with a look back beyond the year and at two moments in my life that stand out. It will make sense in a little bit. The first moment takes place shortly after my second birthday. I’m in the kitchen with my maternal grandmother, my “Abuelita”, and she is standing in front of the refrigerator. I don’t remember many details, but I do remember her pointing at figures on the fridge and enunciating their names. The figures are magnets of the alphabet and the ten numbers (0-9). She does this over and over again in the mornings as I sit at the table and look up. That morning, the letter P fell off the fridge and almost went underneath the fridge. “Ay, abuelita, se cayó la pe,” I said. (“Oh, granny, the P fell.”) She asks me what I just said. I tell her again as I pick up the letter and give it back. She takes the letter, puts it back on the fridge, and then she asks me what each letter was. I had memorized most of them. Thus began my love of words by learning the letters that make up those words and learning to read way ahead of schedule. (Grandpa would later take me to the pharmacist, the most educated man in town, to show off that I could read from the newspaper, albeit slowly at first.)
The second moment is much later in my life. I’m a teenager and I’m doing teenage things. Dad had bought me an air rifle, and I was shooting cans with it in the lot behind the shop where my paternal grandfather and his sons cured hides on their way to selling them for leather. Suddenly, one of my cousins notices that the town cops had seen us with the rifle and are heading towards us. I throw the rifle over the wall and into my grandfather’s shop. We then walk timidly toward the entrance to the shop, knowing the cops will be meeting us there. My heart is racing. I can still feel it today. It was a big no-no in Mexico to have those rifles as kids. Enough bad apples had ruined it for the rest of us. As we came around the corner, my uncle Gilberto is talking to the cops. He tells them to go take care of the real problems in town and leave us kids alone. He says that we’re just kids and that they’re wasting their time. In between talking to the cops, my uncle turns to us and winks. The cops leave, and he goes back inside the shop. The rifle had almost nailed him in the head when I threw it over the wall.
I tell you those two stories because they’re part of a bigger narrative about my family and about those two people, Abuelita and Tío Gilberto. Abuelita passed away this past May at the age of 87 after a prolonged illness. I had a chance to sit with her and chat for a good while when I went to Mexico in April. By then I already knew that I had been accepted into Hopkins and told her so. She said she was very proud of me and she took full credit for my academic successes after having taught me how to read at such a young age. (That lifetime of reading opened up knowledge to me like very few things would.) She said that she might not get to see me as a “doctor” but that I always was her “little doctor”, though I dwarfed her in size since I was 13, and she dwarfed me in presence my entire life. There are many, many more stories about her and I that I’d like to share, especially the long, long trip home in the middle of a snowstorm in El Paso, but those are for later.
My Tío Gilberto passed away a week before my Abuelita. In reality, he passed away while I was down there in April, but that story is much too painful to re-tell, even months after the fact. So I’d rather remember those two souls by those two memories and many others I have of them. Their lives are better celebrated and remembers by exactly that, their lives. Death, as definitive and brutal as it is, only enhances life, adds flavor to it in that we are reminded through it that our time on this planet is precious and so are the lives that we share with the people we care about and love. Death made 2013 a year to forget, but their lives made it a year to remember.
In Public Health, we lost three people I consider “giants” in the field. First, C. Everett Koop passed away. To say that he was a giant is putting it mildly. His contributions to public health were enormous, even if they were shrouded in controversy and many times sprinkled with subjectivity. He took that subjectivity and put it aside when it came to abortion and HIV/AIDS. When his political superiors asked him to be more conservative in his approach to that and other projects, Dr. Koop did not. Even if he abhorred the idea of abortion, he understood that the evidence did not support the claims that many in the conservative circles were making about the cause and effects of having one. The same thing was true with HIV/AIDS. While it was a disease of the “unclean” and the “dirty” to many, he made it clear that it was a disease anyone of us could get, regardless of our lifestyle, if we were not careful with needles, not careful with sex, or unlucky enough to get the wrong blood transfusion.
The other giant, in my opinion and that of many others, was Dr. Alexander Klimov, a virologist and lecturer on the molecular aspects of influenza. (Influenza being my sworn enemy and lifelong friend.) He gave great talks and trainings on how to detect and identify influenza. His shop at CDC worked tirelessly during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. While I never met him personally, his work helped me do my work at the health department, and we all (meaning humanity) benefited from it.
Finally, another colleague and giant in public health recently passed away. Dr. William Keene passed away in early December. He was known in our line of work as one crazy and energetic guy who loved (and, of course, loathed) foodborne outbreaks. In one way or another, it is because of his work that we have a safer food system now than we did before him. I listened to him talk a couple of times and always liked the joy and energy he transmitted through his talks. The best thing about him, in my opinion, is that we shared a similar philosophy on work. Namely, love your work, tolerate the job. It was that love he had for that work that likely saved so many lives.
Of course, 2013 is also the year in which I finally got out of the health department and back into school to work on a doctoral degree, a dream come true. And I managed to get into one of the best schools in the world when it comes to public health. That was probably my best achievement for the year when you compare it to the rest of the population. When you compare it to what my wife does, it’s peanuts. She has worked full time and gone to school almost full time all this time to get her second master’s degree (this one in mental health counseling). I envy her ability to work long hours with some “interesting” patients and then turn around, drive a couple of hours, and go to school in the evening. She’ll be done next May, and the party I want to have for her then will likely be the story of 2014.
We also got a chance to unwind and decompress from the events in the spring and head out to the Caribbean for a week. We had done the same cruise last year, so we knew exactly how to do it this time. It was truly relaxing and something we both needed before classes started for me and resumed for her. Every couple should be required by law to take a week off and enjoy each other’s company (and, yes, each other). The world would be a better place.
The stories of this year are way too many to recap in one blog post, so I thought I’d remember the people we’ve lost and distill their lives’ work into simple lessons to remember at the end of 2013. From my Abuelita, the lesson was that reading is fundamental, and that our mothers are not just those whose wombs we occupied for 9 months way back when. They’re the women in any stage of our lives who look after us and care for us, teach us things and love us as they love — or would love — their own children. From Tío Gilberto, the lesson was that kids will be kids and that being a little insolent toward authority once in a while is necessary and maybe even a little fun. All within reason, of course. And to be fatherly to the kids, even if they almost hit you in the head with an air rifle. And from those public health folks who I am humbled to call “colleagues”, the lessons were to stay true to the science and the facts, to be passionate about your work (even if it’s something quirky like the flu or E. coli), and to have fun in your work so long as fun doesn’t get in the way of said work. Death is only the result of the equation, a milestone in life to help us remember those lives.
I hope 2013 was good to you. If it wasn’t, then it’s a good thing it’s almost over, right?
I wish you the best 2014 ever.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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