Deceased October 10, 1992
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“Sharefkie” passed away on Oct. 10, 1992, in Boston. The courage and fortitude we all witnessed during his 10-year struggle against bone marrow cancer, kidney failure and their relentlessly progressive complications, were nothing short of heroic.
We first met John Sharefkin in September 1962 when he arrived at Amherst as a group of some 280 17- and 18-year old freshmen. Although we mostly fancied ourselves as Kennedy democrats, we were not exactly a pluralistic group. We were all male, all born during World War II, almost without exception Caucasian, and many of us had roman numerals following our names. Many of our male role models during elementary and secondary school were World War II or Korean War veterans.
John was born in 1945 in New York City, the second son of Jacob and the late Belle Sharefkin, both college chemistry professors in the New York public higher education system. Most of John’s childhood and adolescence was spent in Brooklyn, where he attended public schools, graduated from Midwood High School and was a self-proclaimed “science nerd.” He once described to me his idea of an enjoyable Saturday: a subway trip to Manhattan to spend the entire day in the public library studying rocket propulsion. He was an avid follower of the early period of space travel and kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings chronicling the progression of events in the “right stuff” space travel era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Those who knew John in his later years were well familiar with his will to survive while facing mortality on almost a daily basis. But toying with mortality was not new to John Sharefkin. As a boy, he was afflicted with Hodgkin’s disease, emerging as a long-term survivor following a radical neck dissection and extensive radiation therapy. A second brush with death, which he told me about only in the months before his death, happened while he and his father were driving from Brooklyn to Amherst to drop John off at college in September 1962. They skidded across the center strip of the Wilbur Cross Parkway and ended up in the opposite lane of oncoming cars. They survived only because, as fate had it, there was a break in the oncoming traffic.
In any case, John safely arrived at Amherst and joined the khaki-trousered, taped loafered Class of 1966. He was one of a kind. Nobody could match his droll, cynical wit or his brilliance in physics and mathematics. It was not uncommon to see a line of juniors and seniors outside his dormitory room, waiting for John, a freshman, to tutor them in math or physics. John also fell in love with the countryside of Western Massachusetts and with the game of soccer, which he pursued with vigor throughout his college days. He wasn’t a great player, but he made it to the varsity soccer team, which gave him immense satisfaction. Much later John talked of his family’s consternation about his participation in athletics. They insisted that the way to achievement was through books and study, not sports. Yet some of John’s fondest college memories centered on the satisfaction of successful physical teamwork and the exhilarated exhaustion of practice or competition.
John was a dedicated outside-the-classroom scholar of the history of World War II, qualifying him for a self-appointed role as political and social commentator throughout his years at Amherst. Events of the early ‘60s provided ample substrate for commentary: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, Barry Goldwater and the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson’s great society, the Gulf of Tonkin and the beginnings of Vietnam, the invasion of the Dominican Republic. John’s commentary always was dry, witty and insightful. As he looked at the world’s events, he always felt that the political extremes of left and right both were simply different forms of the same disease.
John Sharefkin graduated near the top of our class in June of 1966. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. That fall, he entered the graduate program in theoretical physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite his lifelong love of physics, he grew weary of the impersonal, detached character of the physical sciences and decided on a career change into the biological sciences. He entered Tufts University School of Medicine in 1968, graduating near the top of his class in 1972.
John’s physical stature would not strike you as one that is suited for the demands of surgical training, particularly as it was traditionally structured in the early ‘70s. Nonetheless, John wanted to become a surgeon. Based on his outstanding performance in medical school and the support of mentors such as Dr. Fred Ackroyd, he was accepted into the surgery training program at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston under the direction of Dr. William Silen.
The next five years were physically exhausting and were punctuated by setbacks as well as successes. John completed the training program, departing with the imprint of William Silen himself as the strongest and most lasting influence. In John Sharefkin’s life, William Silen emerged as the gold standard not only for clinical acumen, technical surgical skill and the application of intellectual force to the surgical discipline but also the capacity to maintain ethical balance and compassion in the face of physical fatigue and a crushing burden of obligations.
During the next 18 months, John did specialty training in vascular surgery at the Hull Royal Infirmary in England and at the University of California at Irvine. He then entered the private practice of surgery in the Washington area. This was a difficult time for John. Although he delighted in the chance to apply his surgical skills in real-life private practice setting, he was discouraged by the seemingly lower standard of clinical excellence, the politics of patient referral and private practice and the burden of bureaucracy and paperwork. In 1981 he took on a full-time position in the department of surgery in the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, embarking on a research career in the molecular biology and later the molecular genetics of vascular endothelium structure and function.
In 1982 the other shoe dropped. John was diagnosed with multiple myeloma—a form of bone marrow cancer—complicated by kidney failure. He became, as he called it, a prisoner of dialysis and struggled against the complications of the underlying disease and of kidney failure. There were periods of relatively good health but also many episodes of intercurrent illness and hospitalization. He frequently required chemotherapy for his cancer (orchestrated for many years by Paul A. Bunn, M.D. ’67) and blood transfusions for the anemia caused by kidney failure. The support of Amherst ’66 families in the Washington area made it possible for John to go on. David and Ruth Morine, Stu and Leah Johnson, Jonathan and Liz Wolpaw and many others bolstered John’s spirits and on numerous occasions served as blood donors.
Despite it all, John was able to develop and sustain an internationally-recognized research program. He delighted in scientific successes and in the interactions with his research colleagues in Washington and elsewhere. But as time went on, the dark side became more and more dominant, as John faced the obstinate bureaucracy of the Department of Defense, as well as the loneliness of his diseases and their relentless progression. Of many letters that John wrote to me and to his other friends over the years, one in particular—dated Christmas Eve 1988—summed up the dilemma of his life:
“What a strange combination of the beautiful and the awful life is turning out to be. When I am out of dialysis, the whole afternoon is a misery like the day after a night on duty, only worse. That same evening I am at home hearing the Bach violin Chaconne on a compact disk that sounds like angel’s voices.
“Everything that has happened since June 1966 has exceeded both our best and worst expectations from that time. So little did I know how far you could push willpower or how many memories I would have of the Englishman I once saved from cholangitis with a sphincteroplasty everyone said was impossible because they had never been touched by William Silen’s divine and perfectionist fury as I had.
“Our focus on what the Nazi party did to the world is no simple hobby or curiosity. It is what gives us the right perspective on almost everything else that happens. It casts a white light on a spring day to remind us how much we should appreciate it, and it nerves us to have ultimate contempt for comparatively minor events like alopecia, dialysis, neuropathy, anemia and the pain of renal osteodystrophy. What does all that amount to compared to the Polish priest who voluntarily went into a gas chamber to save one Jewish prisoner or the night I saved a man with a rupturing aneurysm because I hustled more?”
John’s heart always belonged to the New England countryside and to the special attraction of academic medicine in Boston. In 1990 the chance arose to move himself to Boston and his research to New England Medical Center Hospital and Tufts University School of Medicine. The decision was easy for John, even though he would abandon a government bureaucracy which, despite its drawbacks, assured the continuing availability of a familiar healthcare system.
With help from many friends and coworkers, John made the move to Boston, set up his laboratory and continued his research career right up until the time of his death. Two Amherst physicians in the department of surgery, William Mackey ’73 and Michael Belkin ’78, were a constant source of help and support, as was Michael Watkins, a Boston-area surgeon and researcher who had worked with John in Washington. John last returned to Amherst in June 1991 for our 25th Reunion and was elected our class marshall. We were all moved by his written reflections on life’s joy and misery that appeared in our reunion book.
That letter, which tells us that something John learned at college helped keep him alive, is a remarkable testament to the power of education.
“I was made to discover it,” he wrote, “in the spring of 1961 while answering a written exam question posed by Professor Kennick on a freshman final, written in haste in one hour on the mini desk attached to a chair in Williston Hall on a warm spring day. He asked us to answer whether we thought the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid or the heroes of Sophoclean plays were more to be admired and which was the better model and why. I wrote this exam by discovering the answer as I wrote with astonishment and a sudden understanding I had not had before: Aeneas was only an organization man, executing the program of protective and favorite-playing Gods who ultimately took good care of him and could be relied upon to bring him to safe harbor and home to Rome. He was therefore not to be admired as having himself done great things, for he always had the safety net of divine protection.
“This implicit promise that the Gods above would take care of you, I wrote, was worthless to an intelligent person in this century—a thought I was later to discover expressed so often in poems like “Dover Beach” and novels such as James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor and By Love Possessed or in Peter De Vrie’s The Blood of the Lamb. The ones to admire were the Sophoclean heroes, for whom a hostile, cruel and indifferent heaven and world had only eventually bereavement and death to offer but who stood up to this fact and held up in spite of this comfortless, afterlife-less prospect.
“And thanks to Professor Kennick, I wrote and discovered this in 1961 while still young, healthy and strong and relatively ignorant of the tragic thinking I was cured for eternity following the 1956 cure of my childhood Hodgkin’s disease. In some deep way, when the other shoe dropped in 1982, I already knew that what dignified and sanctifies us is not the prospect of eternal victory over death or evil, which cannot be had, but the magnificence of the struggle we wage despite knowing how it ends: our ability to absorb this hard illusionless understanding and still march forward to create good things, raise families with diligence and affection, to die fighting wars rather than kowtow to dictators and to love and care for each other anyway.”
The last year of John’s life was a very difficult one, as his health deteriorated progressively. As I watched him over the final year, seeing him repeatedly go on the brink and then come back for a few days or a few weeks of reasonably good time, he kept confirming my conviction that John Sharefkin had more courage than any 10 of us combined. Quite telling is his favorite proverb, a slogan used by the German civilian population during World War II as allied bombings and material deprivations grew worse and worse. It says, “was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich staerker.” It means, “that which doesn’t kill me, only makes me stronger.“
A memorial celebration of John’s life was held at New England Medical Center Hospital and Tufts University School of Medicine on November 12, 1992. There, his colleagues and friends spoke to the group about who John Sharefkin was and what his life meant. Three days later, a group of Amherst classmates met at the War Memorial, overlooking the athletic fields. Professor William Kennick joined us. We spoke of John and his life, told “Sharefkie” stories and heard letters from other classmates who could not be present. The closing of Steve Murray ‘66’s letter to R. C. Lyster ’66 summed up what we all felt: “And so to John Sharefkin, thank you, I shall never forget you. Hail, and farewell.”
David J. Greenblatt ‘66