WHEN DENNIS L. MICHELS talks of his late older brother, Ronald G. Michels, it is with soft North Carolina tones that shape a sibling's quiet amazement at what the famous eye surgeon did with his life.
"I sent him 15 people from Kinston, N.C., who were stone-blind or almost. All of them returned to Kinston with sight."
Dennis is an optometrist, the fellow who measures eyesight and corrects small deficiencies with lenses and exercises. Deeper problems get referred. His brother was an ophthalmologist, specifically the man who with incredible skill fixed thousands of impossible problems with fire and ice -- lasers and super-cooled HTC pens -- in refined new ways that amazed peers worldwide for two decades.
Last Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Ron Michels was still trying to fix things for others, this time as a patient awaiting a heart transplant. He was trying to give away to other patients the huge bouquets of flowers which friends had sent. He wasn't succeeding but he was laughing about it with his wife Alice and old friends Dr. Mylan and Betty Van Newkirk.
"Ron appreciated the intent behind the gifts but felt flowers were not practical and a big waste," Alice said later. "Ron said 'I'm not sick and lonely.' So he called around at Hopkins asking for names of 'sick and lonely' patients. He didn't get anywhere. The hospital people thought he was a crank. We all started laughing over the words, 'sick and lonely,' 'sick and lonely.'"
An hour after the laughter, Michels was sitting on his bed still trying to find homes for the flowers. A nurse was with him. He grew faint. His ailing heart, a concern for years, gave way for good. A friend called the home and said come. Van Newkirk drove Alice back to the hospital but she knew before she got there that Ron was dead.
Alice and Dennis feel that Ron, 47, did not expect to die just yet but was fully and typically prepared. Eight days earlier, Jan. 7, Michels had operated on five patients at The Retina Center at St. Joseph Hospital and that night at home had a fainting spell, his third heart episode since Thanksgiving Day. It would be his last day as a surgeon and his last day at home. He was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital, then to Hopkins to await a transplant.
In the last week, Michels was still a busy man. He was enormously proud of what Dr. Bert M. Glaser and he were doing as co-directors of the center, Alice recalled. They had just developed a potential treatment for macular holes in the eye, untreatable before. They talked about the future. Dr. Robert Murphy would come on board Feb. 1.
Glaser, in a speech at the funeral, would regard above all his gifts Michels' "friendship and loyalty . . . even if it meant personal risk or loss for himself."
Michels talked with many close friends, such as Drs. Walter J. Stark, Pat Wilkinson and Steve Ryan and thanked them for their friendship. He was saddened when friends wept over his bad health. On Saturday, Jan. 12 he called Van Newkirk in Nebraska and asked him to come stay with Alice. Often, he would say he felt "terrific, terrific."
"He was the most focused person and had prepared for everything," Alice Michels said. The focus was quickly on love when they met in Charlotte. "He had asked a friend for possible dates and got three names; the first girl didn't answer, the second line was busy and I was the third. He was so focused. The wills, our house in Ruxton, the letter we found in his briefcase the day before the funeral. He did everything for me and the children."
Alice Michels said the letter, hand-written only in the last days and read by Mylan Van Newkirk at Friday's standing-room-only funeral, attended by 900, also showed "the brutally honest" side of her husband.
"He was a proud man and he had worried about not being humble. I think he learned humility in the last month." After discussing his accomplishments in the third person, he wrote:
"This man felt invigorated and invincible. But now, suddenly, he faced the issue of his own mortality. For the first time, he would be really tested. This man was to quickly learn that he was the least among men and that he typified the unprofitable servant. I know well that of which I speak, for I am that man."
All told, maybe 100 doctors attended. His most celebrated patient, Sugar Ray Leonard, the boxer, couldn't but sent flowers.
Michaels was raised a Roman Catholic, but became a Mormon seven years ago partly after nine years of work by Dennis, another convert. Lynn Jensen, Ron's group leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Dulaney Valley Road, remembered that Michels practiced his alms secretly as the Bible asks; otherwise alms become suspect.