and Me in Washington, Va.
By Dan Munoz
It's hard to believe there's a town out here," said my high school buddy Andy. Slicing down the highway at a clip of 80 mph, we wove deeper into the Shenandoah Mountains. According to our map, Washington, Va., population 1,000, would soon appear. But had we not been paying close attention, we would have missed it. The downtown consisted of a main road lined for two blocks with arts and craft stores, a couple of restaurants, and a U.S. Post Office. No sooner had we determined that we had arrived in town, then a decaying wooden road sign promptly thanked us for visiting.
Andy and I doubled back and pulled into the Trinity Episcopal Church parking lot 15 minutes before the start of the memorial service for Dr. David Brown. Thirty-seven days before, America had awakened to images of white streaks across the Texas morning sky and news that the seven astronauts aboard STS-107 Columbia would not be coming home. It was Dr. Brown's first and final journey into space. Now, in the hometown of his parents, Paul and Dorothy Brown, a community gathered to pay tribute to a life cut short.
We took our seats among the 40 or so people who had packed an old church just large enough to fit a dozen benches on either side of a narrow center aisle. Dorothy Brown took a seat in the front row, while Paul, weakened by a childhood bout with polio, positioned his wheelchair in the center aisle. The service provided a glimpse beyond the newspaper clippings and TV tributes of the previous five weeks. It celebrated the life of a unique individual-a man who had joined the circus in college to make extra money riding a unicycle, a physician who joined the Navy to practice medicine on the decks of aircraft carriers, a pilot who joined NASA to chase a childhood dream of one day going to Mars.
In all honesty, I may never have heard of David Brown had he not perished on that Saturday morning. Yet, through the tragic avenue of hearing and reading about the Columbia accident I stumbled on someone whose approach to life now serves as an example to me. I discovered a role model in an unexpected place, in someone I never had the chance to meet. As Reverend Hobson shared stories, read letters of sympathy and recounted memories, I was struck by how inspiringly human Dr. David Brown was.
Immediately apparent was his sense of humor. In an e-mail written from the Columbia Shuttle, David Brown joked that, "We lose stuff [up here] all the time. I'm kind of prone to this on Earth, but it's much worse here as I can now put things on the walls and ceiling too. It's hard to remember that you have to look everywhere, not just down, when you lose something."
On May 22, 1999, Dr. Brown delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of medical students at Eastern Virginia Medical School, his alma mater. Reflecting on a career that was now preparing him to travel to outer space, he spoke with pride about the privilege of being a physician: "For all the changes in health care that we talk about so much," he said, "you as physicians are the only ones who. . .are given access to people both physically and emotionally. That's not under the purview of lawyers, politicians, CEOs, or even astronauts."
As a medical student on the wards, I now witness firsthand how the inadequacies of the health care system can breed frustration and resentment in physicians and patients alike. In an era of administrative burden, falling reimbursements, medical malpractice risk and the crippled physician-patient relationship, finding ways to retain the hopeful attitude articulated by Dr. Brown seems integral to enjoying the practice of medicine.
In his final e-mail from outer space, written the afternoon before the Columbia broke apart as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, Dr. Brown reflected on the view from above. Despite the challenges in his life and ever-present difficulties faced by the world community, his last words conveyed an optimism for mankind: "My most moving moment," he said, "was reading a letter Ilan [Ramon] brought from a Holocaust survivor talking about his seven year old daughter who did not survive. I was stunned such a beautiful planet could harbor such bad things. It makes me want to enjoy every bit of the earth for how great it really is I will make one more observation: if I'd been born in space I know I would desire to visit the beautiful earth more than I've ever yearned to visit space. It is a wonderful planet."
Back in the car and driving down the highway back to Baltimore, Andy and I reflected on our first and likely last visit to Washington, Va. As the sun disappeared behind the Shenandoahs, casting a violet blanket across the western sky, Andy turned to me and summed up our feeling pretty well. For all of Dr. Brown's accomplishments and accolades, for all the lives he touched and the dreams he chased, Andy said that what struck him the most was that "he just seems like a guy we would have been friends with."
A good thing to say about a doctor.