Frank grew up in an inner city neighborhood of a major metropolitan city. His staunchly Catholic family was poor.
His father worked as a newspaper typesetter, setting letters for print upside down and backward. After a prolonged strike, the paper folded. Following a period of unemployment, he held a variety of jobs.
Given the family’s economic circumstances, all six children received tuition-free parochial education through high school. For college, a relative in the diocese office arranged for Frank to receive free education at a small Catholic college. He worked as well.
His dream was to go to medical school, but finding financing for it tested his creativity and perseverance. He finally found a small organization willing to loan him the money. After graduation, he was accepted for career training in oncology and cancer chemotherapy at a prestigious Boston hospital.
The pay was sufficient for life’s basics for him, his wife and small children. But there was no hope for beginning to pay off the medical school loan. Collectors began dunning him for loan payments.
Then one day, out of the blue, he received a letter telling him the last member of the lending organization had died. The debt for his medical school loan was erased per the organization’s charter.
All of Frank’s education had been paid for by others and given to him free. He is certain God guided and protected him in his educational trek so he could get a good, free education in order to serve others. He committed himself to repaying his social debt by accepting only what insurance paid him and never taking money from any patient he served.
He and the family moved back to the inner city neighborhood where he grew up and worked at the local hospital. When I asked whether he felt safe he said yes, and then went on to say that one night while walking the short distance to the hospital a man ran out of a bar, was chased, shot and fell at his feet.
A few years later, he was recruited to a mid-sized hospital to start its cancer treatment program. He continued to accept only insurance payments and didn’t collect money from patients he served. After 20 years, with their children grown and on their own, he retired from full-time practice.
He and his wife bought a home in northwest Michigan overlooking both Lake Michigan and an inland lake. They loved the serenity. Their small, rural church’s congregation in the nearby village became their extended family.
He continued practicing cancer chemotherapy as a locum tenens, a three-month fill-in doctor, a couple of times a year. He and his wife lived in places like Hawaii, Florida and Texas. The charmed retirement life was all he could have hoped for.
Then late one winter afternoon Judy was driving home. Within sight of their driveway, her car slid on a patch of black ice, went off the road, rolled down a 20-foot embankment, and landed upside down. Jaws of Life were needed to extricate her. She suffered brain damage from both trauma and lack of oxygen.
After leaving the hospital, Frank took sole care of her for three years in their beautiful home. It lost its charm and became their prison. He worked himself into exhaustion.
She’s now in an assisted care facility. Seeing her every day is too painful, so he visits her a couple of times a week. Sometimes she recognizes him; sometimes not.
Sometimes they go to dinner or to a movie.
They carry on casual conversations that he carefully manages to protect himself from making impetuous promises he can’t fulfill.
Her disaster is varying levels and degrees of permanent mental dysfunction. His is losing his charmed retirement life and his wife’s companionship.
His challenge is gradually transforming himself into a new Frank, possessing all of old Frank’s knowledge, memories and commitment to supporting Judy.
New Frank will need to find a way, inside or outside of medicine, to repay his debt to the society that provided him with a free education.