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What I Learned from S

Japanese Chinese

Among the many children that I have treated in my nearly forty years of clinical practice as a pediatrician, there are several children whom I can't forget. In particular, I have strong memories of a boy that I will call "S."

S was a junior-high school student who had neuroblastoma, a malignant cancer. He was hospitalized long-term to undergo intensive anti-cancer therapy, but the cancer had already spread throughout his body.

As chief-physician of the ward, I managed to start a hospital school and often observed classes and talked with the teachers about school administration. S was one of those students who was very enthusiastic about attending classes at the hospital school. He was kind and popular with the other children, but what made him all the more popular was his presence when they sang in chorus during music class. Singing in unison was no problem, but the others could only sing the main melody, which meant that without S, a two-part chorus was not possible.

At first, S walked to the school, which was in the hospital building, but as his condition grew worse, he could only take part in classes lying in bed. His cancer had spread to the skull, and everyone, including S, could see the multiple lumps on his head. S must have known this himself.

A few months before he died, S's class teacher came to me, asking how long S had to live and whether he should continue to be given homework assignments. I fully understood the meaning of the first question, but listened with a puzzled face as he explained the meaning of the second: "S is experiencing a great deal of physical pain, but he still works hard on his English homework. Considering how long he has to live, there is no chance that he will able to use the English he has learned. Is it worthwhile to give him homework? I'd rather let him enjoy doing what he likes."

For a second, I pictured him enthusiastically doing his homework and felt a lump in my throat as I said to his teacher, "Isn't leading an ordinary life as a junior high school student what S wants to do more than anything?"

Even during his last days when he constantly had to take pain-killers, S specifically continued to attend his music classes even as he was put on an intravenous drip in bed. This was because without him, they could not sing a two-part chorus in class.

He passed away sometime after that, and I felt that I understood the reason why S continued to attend music classes. It was because he understood that he was needed there. I think that the feeling that he was needed by others sustained him to the very end.

The way S died reminded me of the gardener's death in Wind, Sand and Stars, a book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that I read later and which left a lasting impression on me. On this deathbed, the gardener said, "...I'd like to spade and spade. It's beautiful work. A man is free when he is using a spade. And besides, who is going to prune my trees when I am gone?"

Saint-Exupéry wrote "That man was leaving behind him a fallow field, a fallow planet.(...)There was a generous man, a prodigal man, a nobleman!"

S was a junior-high school student, but he taught us what it means to live.


sakakihara_2013.jpg Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.
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