A half-century of compassion for those stricken by cancer

June 08, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT THE end of another miserable rainy day, at the end of a half-century's work in cancer and psychiatry, there stood a beaming Dr. Nathan Schnaper last week, with his familiar red bow tie that could be seen halfway across downtown, in the midst of his very own legend.

He stood there at the University of Maryland Medical Center with his colleagues and his family all cheering him, and Schnaper tried to wave them off and tell them they were making too much of him. But they weren't. They named a new internship program in his honor, for students interested in medical research. And they said they were naming a new healing garden for him. And then a few folks stood up to try to put words around their emotions.

But how do you sum up so much time, and so much care, in a couple of minutes? This is a man, now halfway through his 80s, who "officially" retired seven years ago but still sees patients several times a week at the hospital's Greenebaum Cancer Center - as a volunteer.

"The most wonderful man in the world," said Sue Singer, whose late husband, Richard, was a cancer patient of Schnaper's. "Can you imagine? He sees these patients but doesn't charge them. And patients who are too weak to come in, he visits them at home. Who does such things today?"

"An incredibly caring person with great insight, who has seen so many families through the worst catastrophes," said Dr. Morton I. Rapoport, who will be retiring in September as the University of Maryland Medical System's chief executive officer. "Most of us have enemies. I don't know anybody that doesn't like Nate."

"He's been a mentor to practically everybody in this room, whether it's oncology or psychiatry - probably notary public, too," added Dick Adams, chairman of the hospital's cancer center.

"A great teacher," said Dr. Skip Connor. Schnaper is professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "He taught me as a resident," Connor said. "What made him great was his frankness, and his ability to speak in clear English, and his insistence on telling the truth, even when it was painful."

In the history of the hospital's Shock Trauma Center, most of the credit generally goes to the legendary Dr. R Adams Cowley. But last week, everyone talked about Schnaper's unsung medical and fund-raising efforts behind the scenes. Or they talked about his sensitivity and his insights with patients.

"Cancer is a difficult disease," said Dr. Stephen Schimpff, executive vice president of the hospital. "Nobody wants to have it, and nobody knows how to cope with it. Nate would come with us on rounds. That way, he knew every patient, and they knew him. He could see who needed extra help. And he'd go back one on one, and it wasn't like, `Oh, they've sent the shrink' in the patient's mind. He was just this familiar face from the group that made the rounds. Families adored him.

"But there was something else," Schimpff said. "When a patient dies, some of us dies with them. Sometimes, we need help, too. He understood that. We had what we called Saturday morning doughnut rounds. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, we'd all sit down, and he'd talk to us about our issues."

"A wonderful, wonderful man," added attorney Ron Shapiro, who has helped raise more than $250,000 for the new Schnaper internship program.

As is his style, Schnaper listened to last week's remarks, and smiled graciously. He's been honored before. He's a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Several years back, the Mildred Mindell Cancer Foundation named him Humanitarian of the Year. Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital honored him for contributions. So did the mayor of Caracas, Venezuela, for contributions to that city's psychiatric community.

In a few weeks, Schnaper's autobiography will appear in local bookstores. It is called I Pay You to Listen, Not Talk. It sounds like the self-effacing comic summation of a career, a patient reminding a doctor: Don't forget why we're here.

Last week, when everyone else had finished praising Schnaper, he smiled gently and said: "I'm so fortunate. I've now heard my obituary. To be alive and hear your own eulogies ... "

His words were drowned out by laughter. He told everybody they were giving him too much credit. Then he talked about things that he thinks are important: young people with curiosity, a faculty and a professional staff that cares about its profession, and the tender care of people in trouble.

At the end of a miserable rainy day, at the end of a half-century of hard work, the fundamental things apply.

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