The Undying Soul: Chapter Six

Pavel: The Guiding Light

A simple farmer named Pavel Tishkoon arrived from almost 10,000 miles away — literally the other side of the planet. In the most improbable of encounters, this gentle man came into my life as a cancer patient, only to serve as my first and most powerful spiritual guide. To me he was an angel, truly Heaven-sent. There can be no other accounting for our relationship and the profound way in which it changed my life forever. To put it plainly, he taught me that there was another way to die, and more importantly… another way to live.

Pavel came from the Ukraine, where he had lived in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. There he and his family had worked the land, caring for their livestock and tending their crops.

Then there was that terrible accident — Chernobyl’s meltdown, the worst nuclear-power disaster in world history, from which escaped a cold dark cloud of radioactive precipitation that visited Pavel’s countryside. Tomatoes turned yellow, green beans turned red, and his fields of wheat shriveled. All were radioactive, of course, yet Pavel’s wife and the other women ground the polluted grains into flour for their daily bread. And they ate the oddly colored vegetables.

They had no choice. They ate what they grew, or starved.

Given that background, it’s hardly surprising that Pavel developed a radiation-induced leukemia from the contaminated food. He wasn’t alone or remarkable. Doctors at the poorly equipped, under-staffed and overwhelmed local hospital told him the obvious. They gave him pills with instructions to take them for a few weeks, then sent him home to die from a low-grade leukemia that would have been considered easily treatable in the United States. And Pavel would have done so, as did thousands of others during that era.

Pavel, however, found a different path to take. He was related to Russian immigrants who had settled in Walla Walla, Washington, where I then lived and practiced. Pavel’s family members told their church about his condition, and that he would die without appropriate care. Church officials and town residents appealed to the State Department through their congressman, Tom Foley, then Speaker of the House. Speaker Foley secured compassionate dispensation and a passport for Pavel, who was flown to Walla Walla for treatment.

That’s when I became involved. The church called my office, as did Pavel’s family. They had no money to pay for medical services, but hoped I would see Pavel anyway. Realizing how many people had sacrificed time, effort, money and political favors to have this man brought to the United States, I was happy to play my part in the noble effort to help him. I understood this would require substantial time and resources. What I was not prepared for — what I could not imagine — was just how tremendously rewarding our interaction would become. Pavel was to teach me how to return to faith, and set me on the path toward my discovery of The Undying Soul.

Pavel arrived in our town and was immediately admitted to the hospital. I reviewed his most recent blood tests, alarmed to discover that three quarters of his red blood cells were depleted. The normal range for an hematocrit (red blood cell level) is 38-45: his was 10. Pavel had severe anemia. Given this great danger, I went to see him straightaway.

A t my first meeting with Pavel, I encountered a wall-to-wall throng of Eastern European family members and friends. Many of the women wore dresses fashionable in the farming communities of their origin; the men sported unusual-looking, fur-lined hats. Everybody seemed attentive, somber and clearly excited to see the doctor arrive. It took me a minute to navigate through them and meet Pavel’s gaze.

What I saw when our eyes first met was far from what I expected, especially given the conditions described in his medical chart. Despite Pavel’s serious condition, I could see no obvious signs of illness or distress in him. His face was worn and weathered, but his expression looked open and happy. Pavel bore an expression as calm as that of the Pope’s. And although I expected that he would be weak and feeble with such a low blood level, the moment he saw me he leapt out of bed.

I saw then that he was small in stature, about 5’2″, dressed in baggy trousers and a tattered faded blue sweater that had seen better years. He grabbed my hand and shook it hard enough for me to feel the calluses on his palm. And then, slowly and ceremoniously, he bowed his head.

While I understood how he and his family might feel about his being given all this medical care that his own country had denied him, I found myself taken aback by such formal deference. I assured him by word—and then, discovering he spoke almost no English at all, by body language—that no bows were necessary.

Pavel smiled slightly, offering me an expression that spoke as clearly and as plainly as possible: this isn’t about what’s formal or necessary, it’s about appreciation…

And, in a word, grace.

That’s a remarkable message to convey with such a simple exchange. But it could not alter the news I’d brought to him: through an interpreter, I explained to Pavel that because his leukemia had been neglected so long it was too late to expect a cure. I was, however, optimistic that we might be able to control the disease, at least for a while.

Of course, that was a gentle way of reporting a certainty I soon realized Pavel understood: lack of treatment had left him at the end stages of what should have been a manageable disease. Now I could only buy him time before he died.

We started right away. The blood transfusions we gave him that day corrected Pavel’s severe anemia. Even better, the first round of chemotherapy worked magic on Pavel’s chronic lymphocytic leukemia. After several chemo cycles, he achieved a complete remission.

“Complete” is a deceptive word in cancer care. Complete but temporary is what to expect with cancers that have progressed to an advanced state before treatment begins. By that late stage these cancers have developed chemo-resistant clones out of the original cancerous cells. These “super-clones” grow, divide and become unresponsive to the therapy, creating a hopeless situation.

In the words of any language, “it was only a matter of time.”

A Marvelous Gift

Three months after I met Pavel, during the remission phase when he was feeling well, he invited my wife and me to dinner in the home where he was staying. We accepted, presuming we could manage the language barrier one way or another. And with the help of Pavel’s bilingual relatives, translation was not a problem.

As Pavel explained it, with help: before leaving the Ukraine for America, he realized it was unlikely he would live long enough to compensate his caregiver. This troubled him, so he asked an artist friend to hand-carve a unique thank-you gift.

That night after dinner, Pavel presented this gift to me: an elegant wooden eagle, sculpted in his native lindenwood.

It stands in my study today, three feet tall, with a wingspan of four feet. (Because of its size, Pavel had to separate the wings from the body in order to smuggle it in.) It’s truly magnificent, and every day it reminds me of this man, and what he taught me.

But as much as I value that eagle, it was not his greatest gift.

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