The sun will remain asleep for another few hours as Dr. Richard Deming stands without a soul around on the street corner outside his apartment building in downtown Des Moines. The 57-year-old man whistles while waiting for me to arrive so he can begin another new day absorbing life and helping put death in perspective.
For now, before the clock has struck 4 a.m. on the day in late March I chose to follow his every step from start to finish, before he will spend the bulk of his hours caring compassionately for dozens of patients as the Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center, it is time for the morning workout. Stair climbing and a lifting routine at the YMCA mark the beginning of what will be a 19-hour endurance challenge. The mental, emotional and spiritual workout that follows makes the morning exertion seem weightless. You can’t let a silly thing like gravity get in the way during a day in Dr. Deming’s shoes or you won’t last long.
A few weeks later and a plane trip halfway around the world lands us on Dick Deming’s present circumstance. He is in Nepal, leading a group of 14 cancer survivors and an equal number of supporters from Iowa on an 18-day round-trip journey to Mount Everest Base Camp. Most of the survivors had never crossed an ocean prior to this opportunity nor had they ever thought much about stepping foot in a place called Kathmandu.
The drastic time-zone change has taken little effect on him. He rises each morning before the eastern sun, makes his rounds in the hallways of the lodge with fellow physician Dr. Rick Rinehart to ensure each of his teammates is healthy and ready to begin the day. If it’s taking a while for the group members to come around, he jumpstarts them with a song or a dance or a backrub or an inspirational reading. We need this often on these hard, cold mornings, making him a busy man on all sides of the world. He then leads the charge up the world’s highest mountains where the beauty of the Himalayas grabs the hearts, minds and souls of the cancer survivors and transforms them in ways they never knew were possible. The doctor skips around yaks and curious onlookers on the hillsides, embracing the world how he pleases. He is well aware that the mountains he brought these people to have taken over his role of mentor. But they wouldn’t be in the world’s most majestic classroom had he not made it a reality.
Born and raised in South Dakota, Dr. Deming grew up “probably poor” but has no regrets of his upbringing. In 1950s small-town America, the world was innocent, the world was small and the world was his.
His parents were embarrassingly thoughtful, often doing things such as inviting the town drunk in for a meal. When his mother underwent cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, during one of the many times she battled the disease before her death seven years after her diagnosis, his father looked up the home address of the neurosurgeon and delivered to him a pheasant, cleaned and frozen in a milk carton as a sign of his gratitude.
Dr. Deming is certainly his parents’ child. While his career in oncology was influenced by his mother’s cancer as much as his interest in math and science, the compassion wasn’t something picked up in a classroom. It was more genetic and could have been applied to any field he chose to pursue and would have likely made him the best at what he does no matter the task. He will be honored with the American Cancer Society’s Lane Adams Quality of Life award this May among having received many other accolades over the years. In his office, he shyly revealed a stack of letters from patients and families of patients who were deeply touched by his role as doctor and friend throughout treatment.
Following Dr. Deming around the cancer center for a full morning and afternoon split up by a lunch of coffee, you realize how heart can go a long way. He’ll listen to a patient talk about grandchildren for two minutes, and that same person will speak of how that Dr. Deming sat and listened to them for an hour.
To quote patients and coworkers of his for this story would be the making of a broken record. Words like “amazing,” “incredible,” “saved my life,” and “changed my life,” get repeated to the point in which you start to believe he might have affected more lives for the better than any person you’ve ever stood next to. He also enters Ironman competitions, goes heli-skiing in Canada and canyoneering in Oman, stories that will make you scratch your head. But those are tales for other times.
When asked when the importance of caring surfaced in his character, Dr. Deming recalls the time he was called to the principal’s office in middle school. There was a dance coming up, marking the first time boys and girls in all their pubescent glory would socialize together under one roof to the magic of song. The principal had a concern and seeing that Dick had a knack and interest in lifting people up, he turned to the young boy. The request was simple. If any girl wasn’t asked to dance, Dick was to take her hand. The dancing hasn’t stopped since.
On a shivering cold, snow-covered morning at the base camp of Mt. Everest, Dick Deming helped string up over 300 pieces of colorful cloth, which danced in the wind over a group of 14 cancer survivors. Here they are called prayer flags, and each one had been written out as a tribute to someone affected by cancer who wasn’t able to join in the journey to Nepal due to either their weakness or their death. There is a good chance Dr. Deming knew most of them personally or had at least learned of their fight.
There are two flags that carry added meaning to him. One he made out to his mother, Odetta, with the words, “The inspiration for my career in caring. Thank you for showing me the meaning of compassion,” written beneath her name. The first and only time I’ve seen him cry is when he completed this tribute. He observes another for a long time. It’s a green flag with a picture of a man in his early 20s on it along with words from his family. His name was Chris Hade. He was a unique individual who had recently passed away. He’d been a patient and friend of Dr. Deming. The boy never needed cancer to teach him perspective. His desire to absorb the world and all it could offer was already in full force just like his doctor. His blossoming life ended so soon.
After a full day at the office of visiting with cancer patients and helping them with life and death decision-making, Dr. Deming explains the power of what went on behind closed doors that had nothing to do with medical terminology or procedures. Despite his phone and pager going off simultaneously and the knowledge that demands were increasing with every breath, he listened to every word as the patients talked about their families.
“What they’re talking about is the way that we as humans are immortal,” he articulated. “How do we live forever? We live forever through the genes that we pass on. We’re immortal through the memories that those who live on after us have of us, the tales that they tell about us to the next generation.”
Dr. Deming never started a family of his own, which is why after his workday he is able to continue the relationship with his patients, visiting the hospice or the funeral home or the families of those lost to cancer without a second thought.
On the evening of the day I chose to follow Dr. Deming’s every step, we took a half-hour drive south of Des Moines to the Hade’s house. Chris has been gone over two years, but Joel and Deb still cry hard at the briefest anecdote of their only son.
We chatted for hours without looking at the time. The Hades said that Chris would have been the first to sign up for the excursion to Mt. Everest had he survived his cancer. Dr. Deming shared a powerful reading from a favorite author about the loss of a loved one. Feeling like I hadn’t contributed to the evening in a specific way, I offered to play a song on the guitar since the Hades mentioned how much they enjoyed music. On the car ride to the home, Dr. Deming had mentioned how I reminded him of Chris, and that the parents might feel the same way. This was all I could think of as I sang a song called “Upward Over the Mountain.”
Prior to saying our goodbyes, the Hades gave me a tour of their son’s room. I couldn’t imagine being the boy’s parents. I couldn’t imagine being his doctor. I took the passenger seat on the ride home, fully exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally from a day in Dr. Deming’s life. It was nearly 11 p.m. and we’d been going since before sunrise, dealing with bigger things than I’m used to. I cried silently in the dark thinking about Chris and those who died from cancer and those who had just received the news that day in the office that their lives had changed significantly. These were normal people. Good people. It would take me a couple days of rest to feel normal again. In the meantime, Dr. Deming walked to the gym at roughly 3:55 a.m. the next morning to do it all over again. New faces. New cases. Same patient heart.
During one particular moment on this endeavor, Dick Deming seemed more human than at any other time. Sure he passes gas and curses faulty Internet connections like anyone else – these things are hard to hide when living amongst 28 other people in tight quarters for nearly three straight weeks – but one evening after a long day on the trail of lifting others up and dancing with them when they were silently begging to be asked, he crashed. He attempted eating his dinner, took a couple measly bites, and lay down in the corner of the dining area, barely conscious and shaky. I placed the coat he had loaned me over him. The next time I saw him was the following morning. Before I could open my mouth, he asked me how I was feeling.
Thoughts of 22 years worth of patients seen during his time at Mercy Cancer Center are with Dr. Deming on his trek toward Mt. Everest. Good folks come and gone, cared for and passed away, looked after and living to tell about it, these are the moments and memories that this one individual carries the weight of.
Yet he skips up the mountain as if gravity doesn’t apply to him. It’s the middle of the journey toward Everest and some of the survivors are having a tough day. He sings out tunes from his favorite musicals and shakes his shoulders and hips as if no one is watching, although he knows they are because he is trying to turn his energy contagious. He shuffles past a Nepalese porter who is lugging nearly 200 pounds on his back up the mountain. The weight looks impossible to bear for more than a few seconds. Yet the young man pauses to observe the doctor. He smiles as if the weight has been lifted off his shoulders.
“That dancing man, he makes me happy,” he says.
He’s just one of many on that mountain, one of many on both eastern and western hemisphere who feel the same way. One of many who will make a man who never passed on any genes live on forever.