'Dinosaur' Doc Meets Terminal Illness with Dignity

John Commins, August 23, 2010

The best part of my job is the people I get to meet—particularly the frontline, hands-on medical professionals who see their work as a calling. It sounds corny, but these people are healers in the noblest sense. In a world full of silliness and superficiality, selfishness, and cruelty, it's therapeutic and a great perspective adjuster to be around these well-grounded people.

So, it was with great sadness when I read last week that David Nichols, MD, a lifelong family physician in Virginia and dedicated healthcare professional confirmed that he is suffering from terminal cancer and has only a few months to live.

"I actually feel very well, but I know it's coming," Nichols, 62, told the Associated Press, in a piece you should post on the break room bulletin board. "I feel very blessed to have lived the life I have."

You probably have never heard of Doc Nichols. That's not surprising. Unless you're one of the thousands of people he's treated over the decades there is no reason to know him. People like Doc Nichols don't usually draw attention to themselves. They're too busy.

I was fortunate to interview him almost four years ago in a piece on rural physicians. He had just been named the 2006 Country Doctor of the Year by physician recruiters Staff Care, having been nominated on the sly by his colleagues.

Doc Nichols told me about his 90-hour work weeks, and his tiny three-physician practice in White Stone, near the mouth of the Rappahannock River in coastal Virginia. And he told me about his life's work as a volunteer physician on Tangier Island, about 25 miles out in Chesapeake Bay. For the last three decades, Nichols has flown himself and colleagues to the island every Thursday to provide the 600 or so residents of the tiny fishing community with, often, their only access to healthcare. This island is so remote that linguists claim the inhabitants still speak a dialect similar to Elizabethan English.

Doc Nichols was the subject of a piece I was writing about the good old fashioned family doctor in rural America, and what we're going to do when they're gone.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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