SUMMER 2008 NEWSLETTER

mark

We were all saddened by the death in June of our beloved friend and dear colleague Mark B. Levin. Mark loved to teach and to write, so we dedicate this special edition of the newsletter to him. The first article is taken from the eulogy delivered by Joan Levin, Mark's wife, which is reproduced in its entirety later in this newsletter. In it, Mark addresses his patients and their parents for the last time, ever the teacher and caring physician. The second, is the final thoughts delivered at his memorial service by Janna, his daughter. Joan Levin's eulogy follows. The last article is the reflection Dr. Lou Tesoro delivered at the service.

 

The Last Word by Mark Benjamin Levin, M.D.

"To the patients in my practice: The outpouring of cards, e-mail s, phone calls and flowers always brought a smile to my face. Please know how much I appreciated each word you wrote, each original piece of artwork, every photograph you sent. Some last advice from your pediatrician: Stay in school and take intellectual challenges to broaden your mind; have pride in your work; respect your body, your peers, family and teachers; strengthen our community by volunteering your time. Be generous with your talents; don't aggravate your siblings or parents; rather, embrace the time you spend with them. I hope when the time comes, you will be lucky enough to find a life partner like I did, with whom you can navigate all of life's ups and downs, respectfully and most importantly, with love.

To the parents of the children in my practice: I hope you find as much pleasure in your families as I did in mine and that you continue to nourish and stimulate your children. Strive to understand their physical as well as their emotional needs. Treat your children with love and respect and watch with pride as they grow and develop."

 

For Moddie by Janna, David and Rachel Levin

Some of you knew him as Dr. Levin, some as Donald Duck, and some as Mark. To us, he was Dad. Our dad was a special person. He was involved in the lives of many of the children in Princeton. That was his public life. We were his private life. It is our privilege to say that he was our father, part of the foundation on which our family was built. The profound and intensely personal impact that he h a d on us makes it impossible for us to convey how deeply we cared for him. We loved him more than we could ever express. Because we feel it is impossible to convey our feelings about how he impacted our lives as a father, we will try to describe some of his many qualities that we admired.

For Dad, family always came first. He made it a priority to spend time with us and support us: he drove us to school every morning, blocked out time from work to attend our soccer games, and shlepped all of our possessions through airports on family vacations and up multiple flights of stairs when we moved into college. When our family grew to include Adrian and Kate, he treated them as his own, and made a seamless transition from having three children in his family to having five. During his recent stays in the hospital, it was clear from the expression on his face that our visits brought him tremendous joy and lifted his spirits. Even on the days when he felt the worst, when we called or visited, he always asked if there was anything he could do for us anything we needed. He found great comfort in Mom's consistent presence and, at the end, his confidence that he and Mom had provided us with a solid foundation on which to build the rest of our lives brought him peace.

We see many reflections of Dad in ourselves. I inherited his silly sense of humor and his diligence. In David, we see not only Dad's baldness, but also his calm, cool character, even in difficult circumstances. In Rachel, we see Dad's candor, his reflective demeanor, and his straightforwardness. Dad always taught us: If you do a job, do it right. If it doesn't work out the way you want it to the first time, try again, and again, and again - with gusto and a sense of humor - until you are successful. As some of us stand on the brink of parenthood, we hope our children will exhibit many of their Zaydie's wonderful traits.

Dad was a scientist and a teacher at heart. He liked to say that he took every science course eight times - for himself in high school and college and twice more with each of us when we were in school. He would sit with us at the kitchen table for hours, drawing diagrams on napkins to illustrate a point and making up practice problems. He always said that if he hadn't been a doctor, he would have been a high school math or science teacher.

Dad loved learning about the world and discussing its wonders and challenges. Often, these conversations would occur on long car rides or when we went jogging together. We would tell him about school or work and he would share stories about his childhood, his day, or his thoughts on politics, finances, or the future. We could always count on him to put his own needs on hold to give us his attention when we needed it. He also knew when to simply step aside. He was very open with us, never shying away from a difficult topic and challenging us with opposing perspectives.

The Symposium is Plato's famous dialogue in which he discusses the many forms of love. The highest form of love, Plato argues in this ancient text, is the love of a teacher who improves the people he cares about by his teaching and his example. Dad was a man of limitless generosity and absolutely uncompromising integrity. Everyone who came into contact with him became a better person by his example. We feel so grateful to have been able to spend so much time with him and to have profited from his wisdom and his caring.

One of the eerily stirring and beautiful things about the process of death is how much it teaches you about life. We have become more aware of our fragility and impermanence, and have become more cognizant of our choices and relationships. There is something terrifying and real in the process of dying. Unlike many aspects of life which can be avoided, even if only temporarily, the death of a loved one and the accompanying feelings of emptiness, anger, sadness, and, eventually, peace, must be confronted head on.

It takes a truly remarkable woman to deal with adverse circumstances with grace, poise, and patience. Mom fought this battle courageously right along with Dad. She stayed with Dad day and night, for months on end, supporting him, comforting him, and bringing him peace. Although we often felt ourselves falling apart, Mom and Dad's composed presence helped us all endure this experience.

Mom and Dad led us selflessly through the first chapters of our lives. The best way we can think of to honor Dad's memory is to let the lessons they taught us continue to guide us and be a foundation for how we raise our own families.

 

Beloved by Joan Levin

The Torah teaches us that the greatest responsibility a parent has is to educate his or her children. Indeed, we recite, "You shall teach them unto your children" , two times each day. Mark valued and lived by these words. Although one of the first words that would probably come to mind when thinking of Mark would be the word pediatrician, he was first and foremost the paradigm of a teacher and educator. Mark's legacy is in many valuable lessons he taught us.

When faced with adversity, his message was to move forward, to find the sliver of hope or goodness in the situation. When first diagnosed with cancer and everyone close to him was upset, Mark's attitude was, "How lucky I am that my physicians diagnosed me at an early stage." He was thankful he could receive most of his treatment in Princeton at a wonderful hospital with an outstanding staff. He regarded his various and prolonged treatments and hospital stays as mere inconveniences. Mark thought positively, even about something as threatening as a cancer diagnosis. Giving into the disease was never an option. He inspired us with his positive attitude and turned a wrenching situation into an ambitious plan for survival.

Mark thought everyone could be like Little Engine That Could. He firmly believed that there was nothing you cannot accomplish if you want it badly enough and are willing to work for it. He gave his best, no matter how long or tough the challenge. When David, Kate and Janna decided to undertake the grueling feat of hiking the Grand Canyon from one rim to the other, Mark, at age 55 said, "I'm in!" and finished, 20 pounds lighter. When doctors said to him, one more test, one more procedure, he was always willing and encouraging of their suggestions. He met each set back with fortitude in lieu of despair, hope rather than sadness. He taught us to use the words, "I'll try" not "I can't" and \"Let's go for it" rather than "This is too hard". He def ied the medical odds over and over again with his pure determination, persistence and will to survive. We marveled at his strength of spirit and mind and his willingness to move forward, even as his body weakened and the odds of survival became less favor able.

Mark taught us how to learn from our mistakes and to take responsibility for them. He was a true believer in the blessing of a skinned knee. When Janna, David or Rachel would bring home a test or homework assignment which wasn't up to par, they knew that Mark's words to them would be, "How and what can you learn from your mistakes?" and "Do you understand the concepts now?" He would never ask, "Why didn't you do better?"and would never run interference for them when they lamented the injustice or unfairness of a situation. Because he knew that navigating through life's ups and downs was an important skill for his children to hone, Mark modeled this behavior time and time again when faced with adversity. He believed that missteps and misfortunes help us to be stronger than we ever suspected we could be.

In Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 34, we read "The stranger who shall reside with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." This important message, to be proactive, to help those in need is modeled in the mitavah of Tikkun Olam helping to repair the world.

Mark regarded these words seriously. He would not stand by and wait for something to happen, for he knew that indifference was not the answer. He inundated his congressmen and senators with letters and signed petitions about everything from the humanitarian crisis in Darfur to his staunch support of Israel. He cared about the little people both in his professional life and in the world. He did extraordinary work with Court Appointed Special Advocates, CASA, an organization that advocates in court for the best interests of children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and/or neglect. Mark got in on the ground floor with the Mercer chapter, becoming its president, raising funds, doing computer networking, troubleshooting, steering it through affiliation and accreditation, working on personnel issues, writing bylaws, various manuals and reports. He lived what he said: Donate generously of your time and your resources to help those in need.

Mark had an uncanny ability to fix things. Whether it was an appliance, a car or any machine, he could repair it. Even when he was in the hospital under heavy sedation, he talked me through repairs for the clothes dryer and the garage door and his partners through some computer glitches. As well as he could fix things, he could also break anything he touched. We affectionately nicknamed him MOD, an acronym for Master of Disaster. He would walk down a flight of stairs, loose his balance, put his foot through the wall and then turn around to replaster and paint the damage. He would back the car out of the garage, take off the side view mirror, order a new one an d install it. He always kept his sense of humor and was very good-natured when we teased him about it. His lesson to us was not to worry or dwell on the insignificant and least of all replaceable material items. He focused on things that mattered like building strong relationships with those dear to him and forgot that which was unimportant.

The poet John Keats wrote, "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter". Silence can be the loudest of voices and you can say that Mark was the equivalent of a screamer. He had a unique ability to contemplate a situation quietly and to focus on a conversation but never monopolize it or ever insist his was the only correct opinion. By example, he taught us to be good listeners, to consider all sides of a situation and to be respectful of others'opinions.

Unlike other Jewish mothers, Mark's mother wanted him to be a doctor. Growing up, his next door neighbor was a pediatrician and Mark's mother thought that Mark would make an excellent doctor. Mark thought it would be fun to play and work with children as a career. Thus, he found something in life about which he was passionate and did it well.

Mark truly loved going to work. He relished the camaraderie of his extraordinary partners and outstand ing staff and of course, adored the children and parents in his practice. Mark would grin from ear to ear when patients called him Dr. Donald Duck because of his ability to talk like the cartoon character. He chuckled loudly when parents told him that the y knew their child wasn't sick but just wanted to go to the office to visit Donald. He gave parents the courage to be strong advocates for their children, listened to them when others did not and investigated concerns with amazing energy and persistence. He lived by a mantra he was told as an intern: "The only thing wrong with being on call every other night is that you miss half of the cases." He cared about each of the patients, regardless of which physician in the practice they saw, and enjoyed being a part of their young lives. In a letter he received in the hospital, one of his patients shared, "I'm pretty set on studying neuroscience or something in the general area of medicine. Not sure if I could do pediatrics as I imagine it's tough to deal with all of the ridiculous things kids do to themselves."Well, the ridiculous things that kids do to themselves are exactly what Mark loved to deal with. It was a great joy for him to see our children, Janna, Adrian, David, Kate and Rachel and me pursuing our passions in our respective areas of interest because he derived so much pleasure from his own work.

However, the most important thing Mark taught us was that nothing was more precious than family. He never craved material items, just time with his children and extended family members. We were blessed to share many wonderful family times together - playing board games, hiking, camping, skiing, having lively discussions and just being in each other's company. I know that these memories will sustain us for they are plentiful and joyous. He was an incredibly loving and respectful father and husband. He gave us big hugs and kisses every morning when he left for work and every evening when he came home. Mark was always overjoyed to be with his family. He was utterly delighted when Janna married Adrian and David married Kate. He loved these two additions to his family and often said how blessed he was to have 5 terrific children and me to love. His life was rich with people to love and those who loved him.

I met Mark when I was 15. We learned at our 30th anniversary that my father had met Mark at High Holiday services and liked him instantly. My mother said he had a face that was kind and full of love and decided he would be a good boyfriend for me. My dad arranged for both of us to hold leadership positions in a newly formed United Synagogue Youth group, sealing the match. We were married 5 years later and celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary last December. Mark told the children and me every single day that he loved us. He never hung up the phone or said goodbye without saying, "Love you". And he never went to sleep at night without repeating those words. He taught us to take the time to let the people most important to us know that they were cherished, respected and loved.

Our family is very proud of the wonderful, extraordinary man he was - one of integrity, devotion and a great source of happiness to us. Mark taught us best not by exhortation, but by example, not through preaching, but by the respectful, loving, caring life he led. His death will not sever the connection we had to him. For the lessons he taught us, his goodness, his deeds and his wisdom will remain with us always and continue to guide us wherever we go. We are surrounded by his loving presence. May his memory continue to bless and inspire us to goodness in death as it did in his life, and be a source of wisdom to all of his loved ones and to those in our precious community.

At the suggestion of Rabbi Feldman, I asked Mark if he wanted to say anything to the mourners at his funeral. He was intrigued by the idea. With a slight twinkle in his pale blue eyes and a rueful smile, he replied, "Only if you read my words for me. You know I don't like to speak in public."

So, dur ing one of the last conversations I had with Mark we spoke about the remarkable community in which we are fortunate to live. The conversation was brief but he wanted me to share these final thoughts with you that were in the form of extreme gratitude and thanks. And here I am, getting the last word in as he always said I did, but this time, on his behalf.

To the patients in my practice: The outpouring of cards, emails, phone calls and flowers always brought a smile to my face. Please know how much I appreciated each word you wrote, each original piece of artwork, every photograph you sent. Some last advice from your pediatrician: Stay in school and take intellectual challenges to broaden your mind; have pride in your work; respect your body, your peers, family and teachers; strengthen our community by volunteering your time. Be generous with your talents; don't aggravate your siblings or parents; rather, embrace the time you spend with them. I hope when the time comes, you will be lucky enough to find a life partner like I did, with whom you can navigate all of life's ups and downs, respectfully and most importantly, with love.

To the parents of the children in my practice: I hope you find as much pleasure in your families as I did in mine and that you continue to nourish and stimulate your children. Strive to understand their physical as well as their emotional needs. Treat your children with love and respect and watch with pride as they grow and develop.

To the outstanding staff at The Unive rsity Medical Center of Princeton: The gentle and loving care you gave me was extraordinary. You made yourselves available to my family and me day and night. You cared for me with dignity and compassion and tended to all my needs as well as those of my family members. You always made time to explain everything. You welcomed my children's calls to your cell phones, during busy office hours and after hours. The endless days and nights you spent thinking about my disease, conferring interdepartmentally, doing procedures, following up with results, allowing me to be a part of the management of my treatment and literally performing miracles to prolong my life - these are the things for which I thank you. You are my heroes. You gave me the gift of many extra months to spend with Joan and the children.

To the Staff at the Pediatric Group: No one could ask for more dedicated or kinder co-workers. You put up with my many quirks without a word of criticism. You watched over me during my illness and helped me get through the days with good humor, gentle but firm care and an abundance of tenderness and love. You filled my days with laughter, challenges and kindness. You are what the profession and practice of good medicine is all about. Coming to work was a joy. The dedication and enthusiasm with which you do your jobs cannot be duplicated. It was a blessing to be a part of the practice and to call you my extended family.

To our Jewish Center family and clergy, community members, dear friends and my beloved relatives: You sustained my family during my long illness. Joan would receive calls and emails every day. How can I help you? What errand can I run for you? Which child needs a ride to or from the airport or the train station? Can I come and stay with Mark so you can take a break? You took so many tremendous burdens from our family so they could concentrate on me. At the hospital, the nurses affectionately called Joan the bag lady because everyday, sometimes twice a day, someone would deliver a bag or two overflowing with food. They told her that they needed to buy an additional refrigerator just for the food that appeared every day through a remarkable process, organized by extraordinary people. Friends and relatives rearranged their lives to help us. At Pesach, we joked that the parting of the Red Sea was nothing compared to the miracles this community performed to sustain us. Imagine having a Seder meal complete with a Seder plate and all the trimmings, including plastic frogs, delivered to the hospital so we could have a Seder in the hospital room! When I needed blood transfusions, Joan emailed a few people and soon the blood bank could not keep up with the donations. The blood bank at the hospital, usually running between 50-62% capacity, was filled to a remarkable 92%. Your donations not only miraculously prolonged my life, but also helped so many other patients at the hospital, particularly one woman who needed 15 pints of my blood type that was only there because of your donations. It was extraordinary.

I know the misabeyrach prayer, which asks for a complete healing of the body and spirit, was recited for me in this community as well as in others. Every Shabbat, I would think about the prayer and all of the many voices chanting it in unison. This thought helped me tremendously, harnessing my will to endure, to keep going, to fight. I derived an enormous amount of strength from all of your prayers.

Thank you for taking care of my family so they had extra time to spend with me. I take great comfort in knowing that Joan and our five children and three grandchildren to be have an excellent support system. You enriched my life with your friendship and presence. It was a privilege for me to serve this community and be a part of your lives.

 

Great Friend by Louis J. Tesoro, MD

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; This is the meaning of success.

This is part of a plaque that hung on the wall of Mark's office. It served not only as a challenge to the young people who entered his office, but as a cloak worn by Mark defining the way he conducted his life. Whether through his impersonation of Donald Duck, a warm smile, a friendly hug, a personable handshake, Mark greeted each patient with a warm hello. With his prolific writing, sound advice, fatherly counsel, practical guidance, Mark touched the lives of so many children and young adults over the years. His was truly a life of success.

I am honored to have been asked by Mark and his family to speak today at the memorial of his life. I feel inadequate to the task of representing so great a man, but I will do my best in the short time allotted. Mark will live forever in our memories, so I will share a few of those today.

I remember the very first time I met Mark. Twenty years ago, as a senior resident visiting the Pediatric Group, I followed Mark around for the day to learn about the practice as he saw his patients. Later, I attended the Pediatric Department meeting where Mark served as chair. Simple stated, to me Mark was larger than life. In every encounter, with patients and colleagues, Mark had a commanding presence. He was determined, inspired, unflappable, charismatic; but also sincere, compassionate, understanding.

Working side by side with him for twenty years, I have never seen a more caring, dedicated, beloved, passionate man. And his caring extended beyond his patients to the greater community where he served the most needy children in his work with CASA and for which he was twice nominated for the hospital's humanitarian award. His commitment to service and others was so great, that Mark taught me a great deal about what it means to be a compassionate physician.

Mark was completely dedicated to his work at the Pediatric Group. Often arriving at 6:30, Mark could frequently be found immersed in any number of activities: writing articles, checking the office intranet and computer operations, over seeing the operation of our lab, organizing the group's response to the next set of government regulations. It was during these times when Mark was all business that I loved tapping into his softer side. I would often make a well-timed comical remark that would catch Mark off guard causing him to break out in his classic ear to ear grin!

Ten years ago, when I first accepted my department's nomination as chairman, Mark recognized that I was not only eager, but quite nervous. One afternoon, he bounded in to my office wearing that grin I told you about and carrying a gavel and a button which read "I'll be the judge of that" saying, "Here, you're gonna need this!" From that moment on, I knew I could always count on Mark's support and encouragement, gifts I have always treasured.

When Norman Katz left the Pediatric Group a few years ago, having run the practice efficiently for decades, we were all anxious whether we could continue to manage it as well as he had. But the four of us formed a very special bond. And the practice thrived. Mark commented to us two years ago when he was first diagnosed with cancer that to him we were not so much partners as brothers.

As much as Mark taught me about life, he taught me more about death with dignity. Seven months ago when Mark was diagnosed with a recurrence of his tumor, we spoke privately in my office where he told me "I'm not afraid to die." What did worry him was how the practice would manage without him. A week before he died he gripped my hand tightly imploring me to "take care of the practice". As Mark endured the pain and frustration of a failing body, he never stopped hoping. And he never stopped caring. To the end, he always had a cheerful greeting and a wide grin.

These are but glimpses of a great life. I knew Mark as a great colleague and friend, but also knew him to be a dedicated father and husband. Each of us has a memory of Mark in our hearts. Share these. Remember these. Live these. And Mark will continue to live with us forever.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And for all time, brother, hail and farewell.