Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Requiem for Doc Nach

My cousin, Jim Nachman – “Doc Nach” as he was known to many – passed away suddenly on June 10 while on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. He was one of the foremost pediatric oncologists in the world. Jim was seven months older than my twin brother Frank and me. Rather than concentrating on his many notable professional achievements, which can be found on the Comer Children’s Hospital Web site or the Chicago Tribune obituary, here are a few anecdotes about the guy we called Jimmy.

 Jim, Cathy and Bob, 2009

Even before we moved to the North Shore at age 6, we took part in softball games at our cousins’ house at 7411 S. Oglesby. They were actually played over two yards: home plate and the infield were in the Hershmanns’ yard and the outfield was just south in the Nachmans’ yard. That a fence ran between them was a minor inconvenience, but not for Jimmy, who always cleared the yards. Jim was also the star of Bash-O, played with a rubber ball thrown at an outline of the strike zone on the side of the insurance company building at the end of the block at 75th Street, as well as leading the Oglesby Sluggers.

7411 S. Oglesby Avenue

When we were kids, parents couldn’t simply purchase a replica baseball jersey with your favorite team and player. They had to buy a plain wool uniform, then sew the team logo on the front and number or numbers on the back. I remember that his younger brother Bobby had number 8 for Walt Dropo, the big first baseman. In 1958, however, Dropo was sent to Cincinnati and the Sox acquired Ray Boone, who now wore number 8. Jimmy took to calling his brother “Bobby Boone.” Bob didn’t like that, and his escalating irritation only caused Jim to keep up his “Bobby Boone” taunts . . . . a real big-brother prerogative.  Boone was sent to Kansas City the next season and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson took over number 8. I don’t remember Jimmy calling Bobby either “Suitcase” or “Simpson.” 

We always looked forward to the long trips from the North Shore to South Shore, although I don’t know how happy my father was before the Kennedy and Dan Ryan were constructed. Seders were at Aunt Ros and Uncle Adolph’s, with furious hunts for the afikomen, knowing the reward was a box of baseball cards. Jim was a particularly aggressive forager. And somewhere I have black-and-white photos of the five young Nachmans, mugging for the camera, at an oppressively hot Nachman/Wolfson Rosh Hashanah gathering in Hyde Park. Jimmy, of course, was front and center.  

Early on, Jim wanted to follow in Adolph’s footsteps and carry the pediatricians’ black bag. While at medical school at John Hopkins in the early 1970s, Jim worked in the emergency room. After relating some of his experiences treating victims of violence, one of us said, “But you’re not doctor yet.” Jim replied, “When somebody comes in bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds, he doesn’t ask to see my credentials.”  While in Baltimore, one of Bill Veeck’s young sons was wheeled in for an emergency appendectomy. Jim regaled the lad with tales of exploding scoreboards and a World Series on Chicago’s South Side; to his chagrin, the kid couldn’t have cared less. 

On Adolph’s advice, Jim chose a specialty rather than a career as a family physician. Not surprisingly, he became one of the most noted children’s cancer specialists in the world. And it was the occasion of a meeting of this august group in Rome that provides Jim’s greatest anecdote. 

The physicians were on buses when they were informed that Pope John Paul II had heard they were in town and, awed by their work with children, invited them for a private service. The buses headed directly to the Vatican, where they were ushered in for the service. After its conclusion, the doctors lined up to greet the Pope personally. I don’t know about you, but I would have headed straight toward the end of the line. 

Jim, however, found himself probably number 6 in the procession. Of course, the first five were Roman Catholics, and each knelt, kissed the Pope’s ring and otherwise observed the rituals of the church. Jim, as he told it, stepped up, looked the Pope straight in the eyes and extended his hand. The Pope enthusiastically shook Jim’s hand and said, with a sly smile, “This fellow must be Jewish!” It turns out this was the correct protocol for a non-believer but I don’t think Jim knew that going in.

 If there were a sin of caring too much, Jim would have happily pleaded guilty. Two years ago, he and I went back to his apartment after a postponed Sox game, ostensibly to watch a Blackhawks playoff game. O.K, I watched while he alternated between making calls to and receiving calls from any number of patients, former patients, campers, Camp Ojibwa alums, students he’d mentored and various other friends and well-wishers. The concern shown for each one was incredible. But if you really want to know the essence of Jim Nachman, it was a simple two-sentence introduction to Janet and me of a young man joining us before a Sox game: “He was one of my patients,” Jim said. “He graduated college last week.”

With Jim before Game 1 of the 2005 World Series

Recollections of cousin Jim can’t be complete, of course, without including the family’s love for the White Sox. Adolph saw his first Sox game in 1921 and went continuously, except during the war years in the South Pacific, until a few seasons after the 2005 World Series victory. Jim picked up the season tickets in Box 45, Tier 6, some time after returning to Chicago and then split season tickets in the 5th row behind the 1st base dugout at the new ballpark. We watched several memorable games together, including the first game of the 2005 World Series, "black-out” tiebreaker in 2008 and Jose Paniagua’s disastrous one-third of an inning appearance. A last-minute ticket for a game against Tampa Bay in 2009 resulted in Jim, Cathy and me witnessing Mark Buehrle’s perfect game. Our last game together, with Cathy, was less than a month ago, our third in five days. Cathy will now carry on the Nachman family tradition of yelling, “Throw strikes” when Sox pitchers hit a wild streak.

Jim and Cathy after the perfect game, 2009

It’s said we tend to make saints out of mortals and mortals out of saints. About 15 years ago, our family attended a fund-raising dinner where Jimmy was the organization’s first honoree. When told we were Jimmy’s family, the guests treated us like royalty, simply because of our relationship, and many spoke in hugely glowing terms about Jim. I mentioned this to a friend, whose daughter was just starting medical school, saying, “They talked about him like he was God.”  He replied, “When he saves your child’s life, he is God.”   

Finally, I’ve said this about very few people: Presidents, prime ministers and Popes are replaced, but you can’t replace Dr. Jim Nachman. If he’s in a better place, I sure would like to see it, because Jimmy traveled the world first-class, dined at the best restaurants, watched sporting events and plays from premier locations, loved his family and friends and was loved by scores in return, and made a living saving children’s lives. How much better can it be?
View from Jim's seats at Sox Park