The Companion

With a pep talk or a kick in the pants, Dr. Nate Schnaper gives cancer patients what they need to move through the darkest time of their lives

July 20, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Doctors speak of some patients as living on borrowed time. Jimmy Minadakis is different. He broke the clock.

"He's not borrowing time," says Nate Schnaper. "He's dictating it."

Schnaper is at the wheel of his brown Toyota, bound for Jimmy's Famous Seafood Restaurant in Dundalk. Like trolley cars and nickel beer, he's a relic from a gone-forever era: a doctor who makes house calls. Unfortunately, you don't want him ever ringing your doorbell. Schnaper is the 85-year-old, de facto psychiatrist-at-large at the University of Maryland's Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore. His specialty is attending to the emotional needs of cancer patients and their families. No easy job. Too often, it makes him death's doorman.

Most people die the way they live, Schnaper says. The fighters fight. The timid surrender. At 62, Jimmy Minadakis won't give any ground to throat cancer. After radiation treatments shredded his vocal chords, Jimmy stopped talking but kept working. Then again, this is a fellow whose restaurant has been open every day for 29 years.

Today Jimmy didn't make it out of bed.

"Just like with an airplane, there's the final approach."

Schnaper pulls into the restaurant parking lot, walks inside past display cases filled with fat lobsters, pretty-in-pink salmon, and mountainous cakes, and sits down at a corner table with Jimmy's wife, Foula.

"He's not going to turn around," she declares softly. "I'm not that dumb." It is not a good sign, she knows, that her husband has begun bleeding.

"I'm gonna go upstairs and see him," says Schnaper.

There is not much to do, really, but hold Jimmy's hand and kiss his forehead. They've become friends, bound together by misfortune. They've also known each other for two and a half years and never held an actual conversation. Jimmy communicates with gestures and a pen. He frequently scribbles a note to Schnaper that reads, "What can I get you? What do you want?"

Nate Schnaper doesn't want anything, other than to keep comforting the afflicted, which he has been doing more than 50 years now, the last seven of them unpaid since he "retired." Like Jimmy Minadakis, Schnaper can't quite break the habit of going to work every day.

Nothing about his iconoclastic style has changed, however. Schnaper still wears stoplight-red socks and colorful bow ties. His office door at the hospital is plastered with cartoons and literally remains open to anybody with any kind of problem. He doesn't use a Rolodex, much less a computer. He does use the F word, and the S word, and other expletives more commonly employed by carpenters who have just staple-gunned their thumb to a wall. Think of him as a country-doctor psychiatrist; one who showers patients with his own brand of don't-cave-in-to-cancer gruff love.

"I tell 'em 'GOYA': get off your ass," explains Schnaper. "I stopped doing psychoanalysis around 1970. I don't have that much time. And neither do my patients."

There's a gravelly edge to his voice. Imagine a cement mixer equipped with a silencer. But the tough talk is partly strategic affectation; a barrier breaker. In truth, Nate Schnaper is more professional love machine than grump therapist.

He will discuss death or depression or funeral arrangements if a patient wants. If not, he is perfectly content to focus on the little things that make an endangered life easier. Whenever Jimmy Minadakis goes to the hospital for a cancer treatment, Schnaper is there by his side: quick to answer medical questions, fetch a blanket or food, and chat with Foula and their three sons.

Jimmy's cousin, Peter Angelos, sits on the medical center's board, but Schnaper smothers all his patients with attention regardless of their station in life. Among his mementos are a couple of autographed XXX-rated videos: gifts from Leslie Glass, a pornographic film star turned cancer patient turned friend who died of colon cancer at age 36. There's also a topless-photo calendar bearing the inscription, "Thanks for always being there. Love, Leslie."

People have called Nate Schnaper a "lifeline" and "father-confessor." Foula Minadakis isn't sure how to describe him. "He is like ... he is like the lighthouse for the ships," she says.

Schnaper returns from the upstairs apartment. Jimmy is semiconscious, he reports, and, thanks to the morphine, not in any pain. Foula gives him a hug.

"No words can do justice to this man," she says, knowing this man doesn't take compliments very well.

"She's a pain in the ass. I tell her that," Schnaper grumbles. With that he heads off to make another house call.

John Irving ends his tragicomic novel The World According To Garp with the sobering words, "We're all terminal cases." Nathan Schnaper, who could be the model for one of Irving's bighearted, eccentric characters, subscribes to that notion. "You know what the number one cause of death is?" he likes to ask people. "Life."

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