Rx: Harvey David Preisler

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it

Omar Khayyam

Screenhunter_1_9Harvey died on May 19th 2002, at 3:20 p.m. The cause of death was chronic lymphocytic leukemia/lymphoma. Death approached Harvey twice: once at the age of 34 when he was diagnosed with his first cancer, and after years of living under the shadow of a relapse, when he was over the fear, a second and final time 4 years ago. He met both with courage and grace. In these trials, he showed how a man so enthralled by life can be at peace with death. Harvey did not seek refuge in visions of heaven or a life after death. I only saw him waver once. When in 1996, our daughter Sheherzad developed a high fever and a severe asthmatic attack at the age of two, Harvey’s anxiety was palpable. After hours of taking turns in the Emergency Room, rocking and carrying her little body connected to the nebulizer, as she finally dozed off, he asked me to step outside. In the silence of a hot, still Chicago night, he said in a tormented voice, “If something happens to her I am going to kill myself because of the very remote chance that those fundamentalists are right and there is a life after death. I don’t want the little one to be alone”.

Truth is what mattered most to Harvey. He faced it and accepted it. When I would become upset by the intensely painful nature of his illness, Harvey was always calm and matter of fact, “It’s the luck of the draw, Az. Don’t distress yourself over it for a second”. It was an acceptance of the human condition with quiet composure. “We are all tested. But it is never in the way we prefer, nor at the time we expect.” W. B. Yeats was puzzled by the question:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of work.

Fortunately for Harvey, it was never a question of either or. For him, work was life. Once, towards the end, when I asked him to work less and maybe do other things that he did not have the time for before, his response was that such an act would make a mockery of everything he had stood for and done until that point in his life. Work was his deepest passion outside of the family. Three days before he died, Harvey had a lab meeting at home with more than 20 people in attendance, and he went over each individual’s scientific project with his signature genuine interest and boyish enthusiasm. Even as he clearly saw his own end approach, Harvey was hopeful that a better future awaits other unfortunate cancer victims through rigorous research.

Harvey grew up in Brooklyn and obtained his medical degree from the University of Rochester. He trained in Medicine at New York Hospitals, Cornell Medical Center, and in Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute. At the time of his death, he was the Director of the Cancer Institute at Rush University in Chicago and the Principal Investigator of a ten million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study and treat acute myeloid leukemias (AML), in addition to several other large grants which funded his research laboratory with approximately 25 scientists entirely devoted to basic and molecular research. He published extensively including more than 350 full-length papers in peer reviewed journals, 50 books and/or book chapters and approximately 400 abstracts.

Harvey loved football with a passion that was only matched by mine for poetry. He was exceedingly anti-social and worked actively to avoid company while I had a considerable social circle and was almost always surrounded by friends and extended family. If you saw the two of us going out to dinner, you would have been confused; I looked dressed for a dinner at the White House while Harvey could have been taking the trash out. We met in March 1977 and did not match in age (I was 24, he was 36), status (I was single and a fresh medical graduate waiting to start my Residency, he was married with three children and the Head of the Leukemia Service), or religion (I was a Shia Muslim, he came from an Orthodox Jewish family, and his grandfather was a Rabbi). Yet, we shared a core set of values that made us better friends than we had ever been with another soul.

Harvey liked to tell a story about his first scientific experiment. He was four years old, living in Brooklyn, and went to his backyard to urinate. To his surprise, a worm emerged from the little puddle. He promptly concluded that worms came from urine. In order to prove his hypothesis, he went back the next day and repeated the experiment. To his satisfaction, another worm appeared from the puddle just as before, providing reproducible proof that worms came from urine, a belief he steadfastly hung on to until he was nine years old. An interesting corollary is the explanation for this phenomenon provided by his then six year old daughter Sheherzad some years ago. As he gleefully recounted his experiment, she pointed out matter-of-factly, “Of course, Daddy, if there were worms living in your favorite peeing spot, they would have to float up because of the water you were throwing on them!

Harvey was an exceptionally gifted child whose IQ could not be measured by the standardized tests that were given to the Midwood High students in Brooklyn. He was experimenting with little chemistry sets, and making home-made rockets at 6 years of age, and had read so much in Biology and Physics that he was excused from attending these classes throughout high school. He decided to study cancer at 15 years of age as a result of an early hypothesis he developed concerning the etiology of cancer, and he never wavered from this goal until he died. Harvey worked with some of the best minds in his field, his mentors included Phil Leder, Paul Marks, Charlotte Friend, Sol Spiegleman and James Holland. Harvey started his career in cancer by conducting pure molecular and cellular research, for a time concentrating on leukemias in rats and mice, but decided that it was more important to study freshly obtained human tumor cells and conduct clinical research since man must remain the measure of all things. Accordingly, he served his patients with extraordinary dedication, consideration, respect and manifested a deep understanding for the unspeakable tragedies they and their families face once a diagnosis of cancer is given to them. Harvey exercised supreme wisdom in dealing with cancer patients as well as in trying to understand the nature of the malignant process. He not only succeeded in providing better treatment options to patients, he also devoted a lifetime to nourishing and training young and hopeful researchers, providing them with inspiration, selfless guidance and protection so they could achieve their potential in the competitive and combative academic world. As a result, he was emulated and cherished enormously as a leader, original thinker, and beloved mentor by countless young scientists and physicians. In acknowledgment of his tireless efforts to inspire and challenge young students, especially those belonging to minority communities, or coming from impoverished backgrounds, Harvey was given the Martin Luther King Junior Humanitarian Award by the Science and Math Excellence Network of Chicago in 2002. Unfortunately, he was too sick to receive it in person, nonetheless, he was greatly moved by this honor.

Harvey traveled extensively to see the works of great masters first hand. He returned to Florence, Milan and Rome on an annual basis for years to see some of his favorites; the statue of Moses; the Unfinished Statues by Michelangelo; the Sistine chapel. He would travel to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum, and to Paris so he could show little Sheherzad his beloved Picassos. His three greatest heroes were Moses, Einstein and Freud, and his study in every home we shared (Buffalo, Cincinnati and Chicago) had beautiful framed pictures of all three. Harvey had a curious mind, and read constantly. His areas of interest ranged from Kafka and Borges to physics, astronomy, psychology, anthropology, history, evolutionary biology, complexity, fuzzy logic, chaos, paleoanthroplogy, the American Civil War, theology, politics, biographies, social sciences, to science fiction. His books number in thousands. The breadth of his encyclopedic knowledge in so many areas, combined with his ability to use it in a manner appropriate for the time or to the occasion often astonished and delighted those who had serious discussions with him.

From Mark (Harvey’s son from his first marriage):

Our Dad was not a sentimental man. He was the ever scientist. Emotions clouded reason…and if you cannot see reason you may as well be blind. But Dad did have a side few were lucky enough to see. While he was always practical… He truly was an emotional man. He stood up for his beliefs and he never backed down. One of those beliefs was that it was important to die with dignity. No complaints, despite all the pain. He didn’t want to be a burden to his children or his wife. He never was. Azra said it best: Taking care of him was an honor, never a burden. There’s a Marcus Aurelius quote he often spoke of: “ Death stared me in the face and I stared right back.” Dad, you certainly did.

More than anything our Father was a family man. He cherished us and we cherished him. He often thanked us for all the days and nights spent by his side, but I told him there was no need for thanks. None of us could have been anywhere else. He and I often discussed his illness. He once asked me why he should keep fighting…what good was there in it? I told him his illness had brought our family much closer together. He smiled and said he was glad something good came of it.

Azra, he adored you. He often told me it was love at first sight. You two shared a love that only exists in fairy tales. Dad could be unconscious but still manage a smile when you walked into the room. I have never seen anything like it and I feel privileged to have witnessed your devotion to each other. The way you took care of him is inspiring. You never left his side and you refused to let him give up. No one could have done anything more for him and he knew it. He was very lucky to find you.

While going through his wallet I was shocked to find a piece of paper folded up in the back. On it were two quotes written in his own pen. I’d like to share one with you. “There isn’t much more to say. I have had no joy, but a little satisfaction from this long ordeal. I have often wondered why I kept going. That, at least I have learned and I know it now at the end. There could be no hope, no reward. I always recognized that bitter truth. But I am a man and a man is responsible for himself.” (The words of George Gaylord Simpson). Our Father died Sunday, May 19th at 3:20 in the afternoon. His family lives on with a love and closeness that will make him proud. Pop, we love you. You were our best friend. We will miss you everyday.

And thus Harvey lived, and thus he died. Proud to the end.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe.

–John Donne