Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dr. Bernie Klassen

Our friend Lorne called me yesterday to say that our friend Bernie had died in Costa Rica from a heart attack. A Costa Rican woman had called him. The funeral would be next week in Chilliwack.

I remembered later how I met Bernie. Doug , whose dead now too, called him and told him to take me to my first AA meeting. Bernie would be my first AA sponsor.

I was living in Tom's Slesse Park trailer having left my former life not knowing if I wanted to be a doctor again because I was tired of protecting patients from negligence and greed only to have the authorities whose job it was to do just that devote their lives to protecting the wrong dooers and killing the messengers. I wasn't drinking. I'd gone back to reading the Bible and asking myself where my life had gone awry. I was going to Father Fred's church and asking God what was I going to do now when Bernie showed up.

He was such an incredible character, full of life, smiling, laughing and driving a new truck. It didn't bother him that I was sitting there with Shinto, my dog, a Bible and shotgun , nothing much else, and looking fairly wild. Bernie was a man of great courage.

"When I stopped, an ambulance came to my office and took me away in a straight jacket. I didn't think they'd know what pills I needed in detox so I was grabbing handfuls as they took me away, my pockets spilling pills onto the street in the middle of town in broad daylight. That was 10 or more years ago. I got back to work and love my life today." he said as we drove to Cultus Lake.

Cultus Lake would be my first AA meeting. I'd been telling my story of leaving medicine, going to Mexico and drinking when we got out of the truck and headed down the side stairs to the basement of the church. "In AA you're what we call a high bottom," he said behind me as I was about to step through the doors. I thought, oh my God I'm enterring a cult of aliens and I'm going to be anally probed. But the sound of laughter in the room kept me going forward. The welcome was wonderful. No one talked about bottoms and all everyone did was shake my hand. At the end of the meeting they'd all say, "Keep coming back."

The only criteria for membership in AA was a 'desire not to drink'. I had that. I figured I needed all my wits about me to figure out where I needed to go now. My wife was too far gone to go back to.

From that day Bernie was beside me. I didn't want to be a psychiatrist again

I thought the 99% gave the 1% a bad name but it turned out that I'd been running with the Turkeys. Bernie, Willie, Doug and Ray would all help me get to Homewood Treatment Centre in Quelph where Graeme Cunningham told me that first night, "The cheetahs run with the cheetahs and the turkeys run with the turkeys, and you sound to me like you've been running with the turkeys." Sure enough I had.

Ray would introduce me to International Doctors in AA and soon I'd know so many more doctors and psychiatrists who cared. NASA doctors,doctors to presidents and royalty would be sharing their stories with me. I'd find other psychiatrists all who were good men and women, ethically sound and morally upstanding. Dr. Lam from EMAS and Willie with the Christian Medical and Dental Society would show by their examples that morality and medicine were not mutually exclusive whatever the government might want to sell.

They were all like the good folk I'd first met at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine where Arnie, Clark and Nady so inspired me to be the best doctor I could be. Somehow with booze, sexual abuse and bad marriages I'd got away from all that later.

Hank, the flight surgeon and psychiatrst from Louisiana would remind me how important psychiatry was. Art would set an example that a man could be really good at heart and still be a psychiatrist. I'd talk to wives like Carole and Anita and feel the admiration of good living and know they'd stood strong together. I'd never known how I'd made such wrong choices but knew that booze never helped.

I'd share all this with Bernie, as he took me through the 4th step of AA and I shared my 'moral inventory' looking at the expectations and resentments in my life, where I'd gone wrong, what people I'd hurt and how I'd been responsible in the end for so much of what went wrong. Bernie never judged me. I never felt ashamed in his presence. Instead I felt human again.

It had been so long since I'd known people who cared for others as all these people did. I'd grown so sick of hearing patients referred to as customers and listening to doctors and beaurocrats talking about people as profit. I was sick and tired of all the lies.

Bernie was an old fashioned country doctor whose patients were his friends and neighbours

Living in Chilliwack I'd know his patients and all of them accepted and admired him warts and all. So many people in AA meetings were sober because of him. "We'd stop going to other doctors," they told me, "but Bernie didn't judge us." These were sick people. Alcoholics and addicts without good medical care cost a hell of a lot more than they do when they get regular care and begin to accept an ounce of prevention. They just don't tolerate attitude and we're all too thin skinned for our own good. I couldn't guess how many hundreds or thousands of lives Bernie saved by being himself and doing the best despite it all. He was a survivor. Addiction is a deadly disease. It's ubiquitous and so many people hide it well until it's lethal for themselves or others. "We're as sick as our secrets, " Bernie would say and lived his life in a fish bowl.

Dr. Rabbi Twerski would say, 'at least in AA you know who the drunks and addicts are."

I always knew Bernie sober except the night he'd relapsed and called me for help. Naturally, a crazy woman, a physical injury and a combination of pain and frustration and he'd picked up. But Bernie wasn't a liar. He had the honesty to be a member of AA and reached out for help getting back on the wagon before damage would be done. In a world so steeped with deceit and lies I so admired Bernie's honesty. It was a light in the darkness for me always.

And he loved women. Lorne and I and he would joke in Chinese restaurants about what great deeds, acts of heroism and what saints we'd all have been were it not for our "love of the ladies". They seemed to cloud our reason and we'd talk for hours over coffee laughing fondly about days of wine and women. Mostly it was lamentations.

Bernie made us laugh. When all else seemed bleak he'd be laughing and telling a story of a new day dawning. He believed in the Holy Spirit. Told me he prayed for guidance and trusted in God to be there. Once when I was struggling with the lies and violence praying for the strength to not return an 'eye for an eye' and strike back 'evil with evil', 'hate with hate' trying desperately to pray for the creatures I'd taken to calling the Borg, Bernie was there for me. I was almost catatonic with rage and despair when I phoned him. He told me to come right over. Something in the tone of my voice, the long silences between sentences, the shallow breathing got his attention. I don't ask for help easily.

That day, I went right to his home climbing over the scuba gear and sitting down in his living room. As I sat down, he just picked up his banjo and played and sang "How Great Thou Art". After that we sat awhile in silence before I was ready to go on. We never did talk about whatever it was that was bothering me. We didn't need to. He knew I just had to remember that there was another side to all the insaniety and evil in the world. He was intuitive that way. Another time he just talked to me about his love for his family, his children, how important they were, how family were the best antidote to suicide, how good his brother was, how important friends were, and his love for his community. He spoke about himself getting my mind off myself. He'd pick me up and we'd drive out in the country, park somewhere and he'd just talk. Sometimes tears would be running down my cheeks listening. Somehow if he carried on, I'd have the strength to go on too. One day at a time. I didn't want a drink. I just didn't want to have to face the ignorance, hypocricy ,conceit and arrogance of beaurocrats and bullies. Days would go by and I'd alternate between wanting to just walk away or stay. Always Bernie would be there saying it gets better. His happiness and downright hilarity gave me hope. If he could stick it out then maybe I could too, I'd think. One day, thanks to Bernie, I thought maybe I can help others too.

I'd visit him at his office and there he'd be, stethescope around his neck full of wisdom and life. We'd go for lunch and he'd always laugh and see the humor where I'd be looking for the gloom and nursing the despair. He'd sit beside me at AA meetings and share something inspirational, tell a little anecdote from his day or the way things had been and how they were now. He'd be working the steps of AA and looking to God and his fellow man for the solutions to life rather than to booze. Always he gave me hope. When I didn't believe in myself, he did.

After I left Chilliwack, returning to Vancouver, my practice, my sailboat, later Saipan and back to Vancouver again, we'd keep in touch by phone and with cards. We'd see each other occasionally and the lights would come on somewhere in the sky. A handshake and hug from Bernie was joy itself. Then we'd tell stories of where we were and where we'd been and Bernie would laugh. His laughter was infectious. He gave so many people life and laughter. I'm crying now missing him, wishing I could see him one more time again. But I know he's laughing in that great old meeting in the sky waiting for me. Thank you, Bernie.

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