There was once a man who was described as amazingly wonderful, compassionate and brilliant. He was a medical doctor. An oncologist to be exact. Highly regarded in his profession. Rumor was he graduated first in his medical school class.
His name was Dr. Eric Raefsky. His patients loved him. His patients’ families loved him. His colleagues and staff loved him. And his family loved him. Dr. Raefsky helped thousands of patients battle cancer in his Tennessee oncology practice. He lost patients of course. But many he saved. He and his wife rescued and fostered dogs.
I had the honor and privilege of meeting Dr. Raefsky when he became my mother’s oncologist over a decade ago. He exuded gentleness and kindness. He treated my mother through multiple cancer diagnoses for 1.5 years. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people recommended him to us when first we learned she had cancer. Former patients sang out his praises to us. Countless doctors told us he was the best in his field.
I still have the letter he wrote to me when he learned of my mother’s death. It’s tucked away in my nightstand drawer and sometimes, when I’m really missing my mother, I’ll take the letter out and read it. And it makes me cry each and every time because in his own special and compassionate way, he honored my mother’s life with his words. It was personable and kind and written straight from his big beautiful heart. I’ll always cherish that letter. In it, he said he was honored to have been my mother’s physician. I felt privileged that he was her doctor.
After receiving his letter, I wrote him back and thanked him for all he did for my mother and our family. I praised him for his goodness, his kindness. I thanked him for the compassion he showed to her when she let her fears be known and let her tears flow freely in his presence. I thanked him for hugs given sincerely. I thanked him for the times he laughed with her on good days. I thanked him for his honesty in the end when he told us through sad and tear filled eyes that any further treatment would be futile. I told him a little about my mother’s last days at home and then her months in the Alive Hospice residence and about the wonderful caregivers at Alive Hospice. I told him I was with her when she died and I told him about her final moments (for some reason, I wanted him to know all that). And above all I thanked him for always always having the audacity to give back to my mother, the dignity that cancer tried so hard to take from her.
But I never mailed my letter to him. I felt at the time that it was just the writing of the letter that was a necessary tool I needed in my grief and not the mailing of it that was important. I think I was wrong. I wish now with all my heart I had mailed that letter– so that Eric Raefsky would have known just how much he meant to me and my family.
I’ve thought of Dr. Raefsky a million times this last week or so. Because cancer has once again reared its ugly head in our family.
I always said if I or anyone else in my family should get a cancer diagnosis (heaven forbid), that I would want Dr. Raefsky for an oncologist. Who wouldn’t? He was incredibly gifted and good at what he did. And he was so kind, caring, and compassionate. He knew the right things to say to terrified patients and aching family members. He knew well the struggles of cancer, the fears, the grief, the heartache it brings.
Unfortunately, Dr. Raefsky’s life was cut tragically short and he was killed at the age of 59. He had left the hospital on the night of August 5, 2014, and was minutes from home around 9 pm when a twenty year old drunk driver ran a red light at an intersection and plowed into the driver’s side of Dr. Eric Raefsky’s car, killing him instantly. I still remember the shock I felt at hearing his name on the TV news, seeing the crumbled cars, and the angry hot tears that streamed down my face amid heavy sobs.
The twenty year old underage drinker was under house arrest at the time and wearing an uncharged ankle monitoring device. He never should have been behind the wheel of a car.
But he was.
A community mourned the death of Eric Raefsky and mourned deeply. He left behind a devoted wife of 31 years. Dr. Raefsky was the Medical Director at Tennessee Oncology when he died. He was well-known for his generosity in helping both people and animals. How could this doctor, who saved so many lives lose his own life in such a senseless and tragic manner?
In the days following his death, it is said that hundreds of patients flocked to his office to be consoled or to offer comfort and support to his staff. This went on for weeks. That’s how much Eric Raefsky was loved. His funeral service was held at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville because so many people wanted to honor this exceptional man’s life.
The drunk driver who killed Dr. Raefsky pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by intoxication and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He had a blood alcohol of .184 at the time of the accident (.08 being the legal limit).
I occasionally have to drive by the intersection where the fatal crash occurred. There’s a green metal memorial sign now at the side of the intersection in the grass where Dr. Raefsky’s car came to rest. There’s usually flowers scattered about. I don’t understand (and never will) why this good man who helped SO many people and who still had many patients yet to help, was taken from this world much too early. I’m angry that our family and so many other families affected by cancer, now no longer have the option of seeking out his brilliant expertise should that have been our choice.
A drunk driver took that choice away from us.
photos from: In Memory of Dr. Eric Raefsky -Facebook page