Monday, August 6, 2012

Dr. Donald C. Liu

May 6, 2008, was notable for two reasons: I almost saw my second no-hitter and met Dr. Donald C. Liu of the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital.

My cousin, Dr. Jim Nachman, was out of town for the Tuesday night Sox game versus the Twins, so Marisa and I would be sitting with his guests. A man in a scrub shirt and his young son settled in next to us just before the first pitch. “You must work with my cousin Jim,” I said, introducing myself. He was Dr. Donald Liu, who told me he did most of the surgeries on Jim’s young patients. His son, Asher, was 6 and just getting into playing and watching baseball. 

Although Gavin Floyd took a no-hitter into the 9th inning, I was rather blasé about it, having seen Mark Buehrle’s no-hitter the season before. Young Asher and Dr. Liu had left by then. After retiring Brendan Harris for the first out, Joe Mauer stepped to the plate. “Walk him!” somebody yelled a few rows behind us, as the eventual 2008 batting champion entered the batter’s box. Good advice: Mauer’s double broke up the no-hitter, and Floyd and reliever Bobby Jenks had to settle for a one-hitter. Upon his returning home, Jim called me and said, “What are you trying to do? Collect no-hitters on me?” He had missed Buehrle’s no-hitter too. 

Jim Nachman was one of the world’s foremost pediatric oncologists, directly and indirectly saving the lives of thousands of children. I quickly realized that Dr. Liu’s work was key to their high success rate. Each had personalities exceptionally suited for working with this sensitive group, and I imagined what it was like to see them together, trying their best to allay the fears of the young children. Each spoke glowingly about the other.

Dr. Donald Liu tragically drowned in Lake Michigan on August 5 while helping save the lives of two children who were in the water. He was with his family visiting friends in Lakeside, Michigan, to celebrate his 50th birthday. Dr. Liu joined the University of Chicago Hospitals as a pediatric surgeon in 2001 and was named section chief of pediatric surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Comer Children’s Hospital in 2007. Like Jim, he was preeminent in his field, and tributes are many. He is survived by his wife and three children.

The hospital has lost two great physicians in the last 14 months. Jim died of a heart attack in the Grand Canyon in June 2011 at age 62 while on his yearly rafting trip with older teens he mentored. Dr. Liu spoke eloquently at the university’s memorial service for Jim last July, and I talked with him at the luncheon after the service. We exchanged anecdotes about Jim, and he remembered my daughter was with us that evening three years before.

I will sum up both their lives simply with how Jim introduced one of his guests at a Sox game last year: “He was one of my patients. He graduated college last week.” I’ll think about that each time I feel the overwhelming sadness for this very unfair turn of events.