Book Review: THE UNDYING SOUL by Stephen J. Iacoboni MD

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Dr. Iacoboni is a consulting oncologist – cancer specialist – for several hospitals in northern Idaho and Washington. Even though cancer is treated medically, surgically, and with radiology, the end result is not always a cure. One of an oncologist’s greatest challenges is to build a trusting relationship that can overcome the fear of death, pain, and loss of loved ones.

Dr. Iacoboni was intrigued therefore to encounter an elderly emigrant from Ukraine who had leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, but had no pain nor fear of death. Pavel had been a victim of Russia’s nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, where even the farm crops became radioactive. His leukemia was getting worse despite all teatment. He spoke very little English, but his body language was cheerfully courteous to everyone. His clear-eyed gaze was always peaceful and direct, even at the final time of his death.

This was so different from the usual emotions of most of his cancer patients, both in his own practice and at the cancer cenrer in Houston where he had trained, that he paid attention to similar behavior in others. He found very few. Most died in coma, or surrounded by family, or desperately hanging on to life. He developed a close doctor/patient relationship with many of them, but something was missing.

Another couple’s livcs suggested a clue. After Andrew died of cancer, Sarah returned to the doctor’s office two years later to look him in the eye and say “Things happen in our lives because they are meant to happen.” Andrew’s North Idaho business was being bought by a larger company which was inviting Sarah to a managerial job in its Chicago headquarters.

This theory that there is some force or being that influences human lives was contrary to the attitude that Dr, Iacoboni had absorbed during his strictly science-based training years. Something was missing from his perception of death, but he had no clue to what it was. This book reviewer recalls that one of Dr. Iacoboni’s patients, a personal friend of my wife and me was a five-year survivor of cancer of the pancreas, confirmed at surgery. Pancreatic cancer patients rarely survive more than a few months after diagnosis. Dr. Iacoboni tells of a follow-up exam: “I told her that I really couldn’t understand why she had beaten the odds. She leaned back in her chair. ‘I know why. I’ve got a great doctor.’ Then she laughed as she stood up and headed out the door, back to her life.” She lived another four years.

He contrasts this with another patient who was waiting for him to arrive one day, who had refused all pain medicines, determined to remain in charge of his life to his last gasping breath, ‘I’m not gonna let go . . . not gonna let go . . . not . . . gonna . . . gonna . . . “and then suddenly collapsed as his eyes went dark.

Dr. Iacoboni says it took him three decades to see that is not our soul that is undying. Death is not an end but a beckoning.

A beckoning from God to rejoin what we think of as our soul to Him. Perhaps it is our own ego demanding control that prevents us from dying peacefully.

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