Help the public understand what more can be done to support loved ones affected by a serious illness

“Is there anything more we could have done?”

I am not the first person to ask this question, and I will not be the last.

This past week I learned that an ex-boyfriend from my graduate school years, who had moved overseas in 2016 and disappeared off the grid, was recently diagnosed with lymphoma, developed severe complications, and passed away. He was in his late twenties and a month from moving back home to America.

In the universe of things that one might learn about an old flame—job changes, starting a family, going back to school—this was one of the less-predictable outcomes. Back when we knew each other, Jeffrey (name changed) had been the epitome of good health, movie-star handsome and kind, with impeccable taste and an effervescent mind, whether he was talking philosophy or dressing up to dance the night away to a brass band.

The relationship itself always had an air of fate and magic to it: Not long before we met, I had sold a set of art prints to his roommate and been impressed with her glowing kindness, wondering where one might find friends like these. It was only after a few weeks of spending time with Jeffrey that I finally visited their shared apartment, was shocked to see my prints on the wall, and discovered that my question had been answered.

The magic didn’t stop there. It seemed like whenever Jeffrey and I went out, strangers—servers, cab drivers, passersby—loved finding excuses to talk to us. Celebrating once at an outdoor festival, a fellow reveler latched maniacally onto the idea that we were meant to be. All evening long, our new best friend kept turning around in the crowd and insisting that if I didn’t marry this spectacular young man, I was a fool.

Long story short, we did not get married. Jeffrey was two years younger and, in my estimation, had his whole life ahead of him to explore the world, become a brilliant businessman, and maybe stop by my office someday in a well-tailored suit to tell me about his successes. Better to let him go than hold him back.

And so we broke up and never met again.

Without sharing excessive or identifying details, Jeffrey would later be diagnosed with lymphoma while living and working abroad. By publicly available accounts, his illness progressed quickly. Within a month of his initial hospitalization, complications developed, and private medical transport was arranged via crowdfunding to bring Jeffrey home. He then developed an autoimmune reaction in intensive care and passed away. The whole process took barely two months.

There are a number of possible takeaways from a story like Jeffrey’s. The personal stories one reads in medicine today often fall into two categories: stories on the one hand of systemic failings, and those on the other of heroic efforts to save a loved one from a terminal illness. The former might frame Jeffrey’s outcome as a failing of the health insurance system, such that crowdfunding was needed to ensure the best care. The latter might frame his story as a missed opportunity for providers, industry, or (ex-)loved ones to rally, innovate, and achieve the impossible. Though in this case, it sounded like Jeffrey’s providers and family already made a heroic effort.

What more could I have done, personally, as an old friend and an onlooker? Had I known about his condition sooner, would I have made a donation to help cover his medical expenses? Yes. Would I have reached out to acquaintances on #MedTwitter, who might have been better positioned to work a miracle? Probably. Would I have flown out to Jeffrey’s American hospital to spend time by his side? Maybe. (If he had wanted that.)

What more could you, Reader, do now?

One, if you are a health care professional—or otherwise in the know—I would encourage you to inform or participate in medical miracles, large or small. Help the public understand what more can be done to support loved ones affected by a serious illness.

Two, whoever you are, trite as it is, please make sure to let your loved ones know how much you care. That well-tailored suit and business career you imagined for the healthy, globetrotting 20-something you were afraid to hold back might never materialize. Instead, failing to stay in touch, you might just miss your chance to help and be left wondering if there was more you could have done.

The author is an anonymous attorney.

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