Saturday, December 29, 2012

The engineer's way of death -- a Saturday reprise

My father died of cancer at age 64 in 1974. I have recently obtained from my sister Peg the journals he kept during the last 12 weeks of his life, as he lay dying in the hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I have mentioned before, Dad was a mechanical engineer by training, and worked most of his life as a quality control engineer for a company that made ceramic insulators and mechanical parts. He was something of a pioneer in the field of maintaining production quality by random testing and statistical analysis. The secret to quality, be believed, is lots of data. Patterns that are not obvious in small batches, become apparent with the statistical force of large numbers.

He brought this faith to bear on his disease. As he lay almost totally paralyzed on his hospital bed, he kept exhaustive data, minute by minute, day and night. He had us supply him with a yard stick, a six-inch rule, a protractor, a thermometer, even a barometer, and of course blank journals and a supply of sharp pencils. He measured, or had us measure, his cycles of medication, radiation treatments, blood transfusions, minutes or hours of waking and sleeping, his position on the bed, the positions of the adjustable bed, food, drink, the frequency and success of bowel movements, urination, and flatulence, the temperature and pressure of the room. Nothing was overlooked. Even in the dark of the night, as his wife or one of his kids lay sleeping on a nearby cot, he kept his notes, by the light of a penlight flashlight he had ingeniously rigged up over the bed.

From his data he extracted what he called "the cycle of energy," which he plotted over and over, refining its characteristics, and a theory involving what he called "currents." On the evidence of the journal, he was convinced that somewhere in these pages of numbers, graphs, and diagrams he would find the solution to his misfortune.

Of course, it was not to be. Cancer cells are less amenable to statistical control than ceramic widgets. He tried to make his doctors see the importance of what he was doing -- not only to himself, but to medical science -- and, indeed, his voluminous journals may be one of the most complete quantitative records of a dying ever compiled by a patient. The doctors in their kindness humored him, and went on with their various therapies, which in the end did no more good than "the cycle of energy" and "currents." It was simply too late.

What is actually manifest in his data is the inexorable multiplication of cancer cells out of control, finally in every part of his body. The journals may not have contained a hidden cure for cancer, but they certainly were a cure for despair, and for the horrible boredom of incessant pain -- the exercise of an active mind in a body wasted by disease. In the final volume he writes: "It is very difficult to wake up in the morning and face "nothing" to do. Writing this diary has been a "life" saver to me. If I live long enough and manage to develop a degree of "balance", I think all the important, valuable, impressions, and sensations that I have experienced can be made available to the public -- if I can't do it maybe Chet will be good enough to do it for me."

Not until the very last pages does he seem to recognize the futility of his data and the inevitability of death.

(Click on the image to enlarge. This post originally appeared in May 2010.)