Tribute To A Hero

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In a previous post, What Makes A Hero, I discussed what I consider to be the criteria that one must fulfill to be considered a hero. In this post, I want to talk about someone who fulfilled those criteria in spades.

I’m talking about one of my colleagues, Don Liu. A pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago, Don and I first met years ago when his wife forced him to finally go see a primary care physician—me. She had to force him because, like many physicians, he’d always thought about his own health last. This was with good reason, however: I know of no specialty in medicine that demands longer or more grueling training than pediatric surgery (with the possible exception of neurosurgery), nor more grueling a schedule once that training is finished. And no pediatric surgeon more dedicated than Don.

Don has always been perhaps one of the happiest, most generous people I know. Of course, I only know what I’ve seen when he’s come to see me in my clinic or when we’ve passed each other in the hospital hallways and stopped to chat. He’s always smiled, though, as if, I’ve sometimes thought to myself, he’s just glad to be here—to be a surgeon, to be at the University of Chicago, to be alive—and has remained acutely aware of how lucky he’s been to be all those things, despite his insanely busy schedule.

And he has been busy. Apparently, it’s not been at all unusual for him to be awakened in the middle of the night so he could operate on a child brought in after a trauma, to go home afterward to steal another hour or two of sleep, and then to wake up and come back to the hospital to begin a full-day’s worth of scheduled operations. He’s also run the Section of Pediatric Surgery and has had numerous other administrative, teaching, and research responsibilities. He’s also been a husband and a father of three children.

But none of the above is why I’m writing about him now. (I wish it was, though—his day-to-day life hasn’t made him a hero, but it’s made him a remarkable human being who deserves not only recognition but also celebration.) Instead, I’m writing about him now because of something he did just last Sunday.

He was vacationing on the shores of Lake Michigan with his family and some friends when two kids of one of his friends found themselves in trouble out on the lake in a kayak. The kids, I’m told, were thrown from the kayak into dangerously high waves. Don saw they were in trouble and despite the protests of his own children that conditions were too dangerous for him to go in after them, did what he always did when children needed his help: he dove right in.

He reached the kids and managed to help them to shore. But then a riptide current caught him and dragged him out into the lake. And he drowned.

I can only guess at the thoughts that passed through his mind when he saw his friend’s kids in trouble: that the water was dangerous, that his own kids didn’t want him to go in, but that he couldn’t stand by and risk his friend’s kids drowning. Yet in circumstances that demand immediate action, we don’t ruminate, we react. And I’m guessing that Don just found himself jumping into the water, his conscious mind perhaps only realizing it once the cold water met his skin.

I wonder if I would have done what he did. We often think we know how we’ll react when facing certain circumstances, often assuming we’ll do the right thing, the best thing, the heroic thing—the thing that best enables us to preserve the positive image we have of ourselves. Luckily, most of us never have to find out just how well (or poorly) we know ourselves. Because, though I’d like to think that some part of Don paused to recognize that he was, in fact, heroic to dive into that water, and that he gave himself credit, however momentarily, for being willing to risk his life to help others, he paid the most awful price imaginable to learn he not only lived up to his own expectations, but also exceeded the expectations we all had of him.

I doubt he did, however: things probably happened too fast, and he was probably too focused on what he needed to do to think about what doing it said about his character. And frankly I doubt, had he survived, that he would have worn the mantle of hero with anything other than embarrassed discomfort. He just didn’t seem to ever think of himself in those terms.

But I do. Even before this tragedy I sometimes thought about how nice it was that Don walked the same halls that I did. The world is only as good as the people in it bother to be, and whenever I would hear laments about the awful state of the world we live in or man’s inhumanity to man, one of the people I would sometimes summon to mind to encourage myself that there was good in the world too was Don.

He was, as we say in Buddhism, a bodhisattva: a person who lived his life in the service of others. That he did so quietly and consistently only makes his life more worthy of respect and imitation. His friends and family are in shock now, of course. I too have a hard time believing he’s no longer alive. This is a natural response when someone in our lives dies out of turn. It forces us to deal not only with our loss but also with our knowledge that we ourselves will one day also be lost. The lessons here are the same ones we’re always learning: that life is both precious and fragile; that we must appreciate what we have because we will one day lose it; that we should strive to live in a way that enables us to avoid lying and regret, because one day we’ll run out of chances to live differently. It’s helpful, though, in trying to live rightly to have an example of what “rightly” means. How lucky we all were who knew him that we had that example in our friend Don.

I wrote this post as a tribute to Don, but the real tribute to him I’ll make will be this: I will use his example and make his life continue to mean something by living rightly myself and appreciating the time I’m given.

I’m so sad that you died, Don. I wish you were still here. But like all tragic things, from this tragic thing value will yet arise. Value will yet arise.

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  • May Don’s memory be a blessing on us all.

  • I read an account of this tragedy in the Chicago papers when I was there over the weekend and my first response was to think of the loss of his professional expertise and the children he will not be able to help. Then seeing the picture of him with his family brought tears to my eyes. You have further personalized the story behind the headline and humanized a hero.

  • I’m sorry to hear of the death of your friend, Alex. I pray for healing for you and his family.

  • Thank you for sharing your friend with me. If I were there I’d give you a hug and ask if you’ve read Daisaku Ikeda’s Learning From The Gosho: The Eternal Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin.

    What a powerful life!

  • Thank you for this beautiful tribute. We truly were lucky to have known him…

  • A very moving tribute.

  • I was reading your post today in tribute to your friend and thoroughly shocked and hurt to read of his passing. I was not prepared for that. So I guess, even though I never knew him or to my knowledge heard of him before, his death took me as much by surprise as family and others, although admittedly their (and your) grief surpasses mine. I almost feel as though I do not have the “right” to be grieved—not sure why, perhaps I suspect I might be judged expressing false emotions. At any rate, I was reading about his remarkable life quite happily for such a person only to be doused with my own “cold water” reality about, as you point out the sometimes unpredictable “schedule” (is that possible to have a schedule you don’t know about until you’re in it?) of death.

    It’s sad for the facts of this wonderful and very dedicated/energetic person who has done so much passing as he did on what should have been a happy/relaxing family event. But it also horrifies me because I (morbidly? I don’t think its morbid I just have deeper thoughts about things than some?) have contemplated ways to die and there are of course some that seem more acceptable (not that we get to choose necessarily) and some more horrifying and drowning is one of those that terrifies me. A psychiatrist I visited with years ago told me once that I am very suggestible and I’m not sure what he meant but I think perhaps he meant that I have at times “seen” things as though through the other’s eyes—wondered/imagined how they felt. I’ve had a too-close call with my involuntary/early death as a teenager; I thought for a while I would be just another homicide victim and I have “seen” at various times since then—imagined vividly details of those poor souls who die at the hands of someone else.

    Anyway, I’m not sure why that is important—other than to say that I do have a very good (too good) imagination and to say I am sad at your friend’s passing and the method adds an extra measure of sorrow.

    Thanks for letting us know this admirable person through your acquaintance with him. I AM SORRY for your loss of a good friend and colleague and for all the children he might have helped but will not and of course for his devastated family.

  • A privilege to read of the life os this man, who has died too, too young. And your writing about it, and finding some meaning is very comforting. We lost a wonderful neighbour earlier this year, a lovely family man of only 45. I think of him often, especially as I swim or walk outdoors, and feel the great urge to live, to enjoy life and to live a good life.

  • I’m so sorry.
    How terrible for his family, his kids.
    How terrible for the children he would have helped had he been alive.
    And what a burden for the children who were rescued.

    Mira: Yes, I think of all those two last things, too.


  • When one good man is lost, the whole world is diminished.

    I am sorry that you lost your friend. You, along with his family and his other friends, will be in my thoughts and prayers.

  • There are some moments in our lives where we are blessed with the opportunity to act with choiceless awareness of what is right. This is one. Given the description of your friend, I cannot imagine that he would have made any other choice, even knowing the cost to himself. May your grief be soothed by the memory of the joy of your friendship.


  • Something I learned from the passing of people dear to me and which I am reminded when another of my loved ones leaves me behind.

    Funerals, and their accompanying rituals, are not for the deceased (even though they demonstrate respect and honor) but for the living left to mourn. It is a time for sharing with each other, an occasion to recall special times, special memories, and so hopefully ease the pain of letting go of a unique and much-loved person who walked with us a while.

    The sorrow eventually subsides but the memories shared last forever. Gone, but not forgotten, they live instead in our hearts and minds.

  • It sounds as though he lived his whole life heroically. I feel so much for his family.

  • Do you honestly think that “…like all tragic things, from this tragic thing value will yet arise”?

    What value do you see in situations such as nuclear holocaust, genocide, etc.?

    et: My complete answer is a long one, and forms a large part of my new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self. But my short answer is yes, even from terrible tragedies, value can be created.


  • Hi there,

    I admire you as you are doing kosen-rufu through this blog, and I admire your courage in doing the 1 million daimoku campaigns. I like to read experiences from all over the world about Nichiren Buddhism. I will follow your blog from today onward. Thank you.

    Daniel From Malaysia
    A member of SGM (Soka Gakkai Malaysia)

  • Dan may be at Eagle Peak now….

  • Value has already arisen. You’ve shared Don’s story of his truly unselfish gift. It has already inspired many. My heart and love go out to his wife and children, and to the family who was rescued.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Erika: Thank YOU.


  • My deepest condolences on the loss of your friend Don.

    Louise: Thank you.