Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jim McLean tribute
by Gary P. Chimes

“I found out that Jim McLean passed away yesterday. I have been struggling to understand how to come to terms with his death. Losing any one important in your life is devastating. With Jim, though, it was as if I lost several people. Jim has been my closest friend over the past 5 years. He was also my athletic training partner, as we trained together for an Ironman triathlon, amongst other things. He has also been my closest colleague, as we have trained together both through residency and fellowship, and were starting our life as faculty in parallel positions. He was also my partner academically, as we shared so many academic projects together that I lost count. He was also my clinical companion, as we learned how to manage patients in parallel. Losing a friend is tough. Losing someone who was essentially 5 of your closest friends at the same time has just been heartbreaking.

I think one of the reasons I’ve struggled so much to write about Jim is that I’ve been unable to separate the different facets of our interactions from one another. This is my third attempt at eulogizing Jim. Each time I start, it descends into an incoherent mess. So I will have to break it down, into a systematic structure to organize my thoughts. You know, the way Jim would have.

Jim the friend.
If I had to describe Jim to someone who has never met him before, probably the best analogy I could make is that Jim was like the world’s friendliest pitbull. He had a transcendent tenderness to him, but he was also the most intense person I ever met. He never did anything half-assed. One of our buddies from residency called him “110%”, which as apt a nickname as one could give someone.

A few anecdotes that highlight Jim: The first bonding experience the residents at Kessler had together was a company picnic a few months into our training together. We decided to have a spontaneous game of football. Jim didn’t have a change of clothes, so he played in his work clothes. By the end of the game, we had to stop because of inclement weather, but a part of it was that everyone’s muscles were exhausted. Except for Jim- while his clothes were tattered and muddy, Jim was fine. He also had an intense linebacker stare that would have put Mike Singletary to shame.

Another favorite Jim story of mine- playing poker. As residents, we had a semi-regular poker game. The first time we played, Jim was painfully awful. I remember him trying to bluff an opponent who was showing a straight flush (and who, in fact, did have a straight flush). Needless to say, he got cleaned out. The next time I went to Jim’s apartment a few weeks later, I noticed on his bookshelf a copy of “Poker for Dummies.” The pages were dog-eared, he had post-it notes sticking out, and words were underlined. The next time we played, he either won or came in second place (I think he actually came in second place. He would have won, but Adam Schindelheim had recently learned how to mind-control Mike Mehnert, which was too big of advantage for Jim to overcome).

Another favorite Jim story- Halloween. We were going into the city for a Halloween party in 2005. Neither Jim nor I had costumes, so we needed to make a last minute run for costumes. We decided to go the Sports Authority- somehow it made sense at the time.
We decided to go as recreational games, so I was a tetherball pole, and Jim went as a dartboard. We wanted to be functional games, so I rigged a mechanism for people to play tetherball on me without strangling myself. Jim, on the other hand, was simpler about things. He wore the dart-board like a necklace, wore a pair of goggles, and that was it. He invited (insisted really) that people use him as a dart board, with real darts with metal tips. His friend Brad and I warned him repeatedly that this was probably not the smartest thing for someone to do, but Jim insisted. By the end of the night, he had multiple welts and puncture injuries from what was a pretty fun night.

That was the fun part of Jim. There was also the supportive aspect to Jim. I know that many of his friends have dealt with some pretty tragic situations, and to say that Jim was supportive is an understatement. Other people say they will do anything to help a friend, but Jim, as he did with everything in his life, took it to another level.

Probably the best example that sticks out for me is a relatively recent one. Last May, Jim and I were rooming together for the American College of Sports Medicine meeting. This was an extremely busy meeting for both Jim and I, but especially Jim. We were getting ready to speak in front of a national audience for the first time, and we needed to do a lot of preparatory work. In addition, Jim was in the process of trying to close the deal on a house he was purchasing in Kansas. He was doing the kind of work that would overwhelm several people, let alone one.
While this was going on, I was starting to have misgivings about my upcoming wedding. I was scheduled to get married 6 weeks after the meeting, but I was concerned that even though my fiancée Danielle and I very much loved one another, we were having difficulty communicating. I had not discussed my misgivings with anyone before, and the thought of calling things off so close the actual wedding terrified me, but I knew that I needed to speak to someone.

Amongst Jim’s many strengths, he was one of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever known. Despite not having time for even a 5 minute conversation, he listened to me talk for several hours, into the wee hours of the morning. When I was done pouring my heart out, he had very simple advice- “talk to some of your other friends. Let them know what you are thinking and feeling. By the time you finish talking to them, you will know what to do. You don’t need to do this alone.” It was classic Jim. Later, he confided he had some reservations about whether I was going to be fulfilled in my marriage, but he gave me the tools to discover what I needed on my own.

Up until 24 hours ago, the decision to call of my marriage to Danielle was the most emotionally wrenching experience I’ve ever had. Jim, probably more than anyone else, helped me get through what a very tough experience. I know his other friends have similar experiences, many more important in the big scheme of things.
As an aside, he kicked ass on his presentations later that week.

Jim the training partner.

As mentioned above, one of the first bonding experiences we had as residents was playing football together at a Kessler picnic. After we finished playing, we sat around, gorging on copious amounts of grilled meats and Italian ices. I brought up the idea of doing a triathlon together. It was a throw-away comment- while I sincerely wanted to do a triathlon with some of the guys, I wasn’t planning on making too much of an ordeal about it. This was my first experience encountering what I would call the “McLean treatment.” Over the next few weeks, Jim had formulated a plan for the two of us and our friend Casey to do a team Ironman (Casey swimming, me biking, and Jim running) as a fund-raiser for the local hospital for children with disabilities. Anyone who has ever interacted with Jim knows that “over-the-top” is not sufficient for describing how much Jim dedicates to a project when he commits to something. He had a 3 ring binder that mapped out our training program for the next 6 months, down to the minute. He also built a giant cardboard thermometer to show how we were progressing on the fundraiser. The triathlon also highlighted Jim’s toughness. Jim had struggled for years with pretty severe patellofemoral syndrome. Jim’s a muscular guy, but he had a notable lack of bulk along his right VMO muscle. His knee began to act up midway through his training, and he wasn’t sure that he was going to make it. He eventually developed a system of taping his knee that allowed his knee to track properly, and the triathlon team figured out a way to make sure he had spare tape available to make it through the race.