The Soul of MD Anderson: Dr. Michael J. Ahearn

The Soul of MD Anderson:
Dr. Michael J. Ahearn


Leonard Zwelling

         It is said that it takes one of two things to get a minyan
(the needed 10 men to hold a formal Jewish prayer service). The first is ten
live men. The second is one dead one.

         I learned this early for when the adults were sitting shiva
after the death of a member of our community back in North Bellmore and it was
time for prayers, the older men would come into the street where my friends and
I were playing baseball and brought us in to pray. We had all been bar
mitzvah’d by then and thus were “men” in the eyes of God. Where once there were
one or five men ready to pray for the dead, suddenly there was a minyan.

         I was reminded of this on Saturday, May 21 at the River Oaks
Baptist Church when there was a service celebrating the life of Dr. Michael J.
Ahearn, one of the kindest and most giving souls that ever walked the halls of
MD Anderson.

         As the obituary in the Chronicle
noted, Mike was a native Texan and a graduate of UT Austin. He found his
scientific niche in electron microscopy, but he found his life partner in
Joyce, asking her to marry him on their first date. They were married for over
50 years and a more devoted couple I have never met. This was one of those rare
marriages of true equals who “married their fortunes together” (Paul Simon) and
showed such love and respect for each other that it emanated out like ripples
in a pond to all who came into their orbit.

         While Mike contributed to the scientific life of Anderson,
his greatest gift to us all was his creation of the School of Allied Health
where his steady leadership allowed the school to become degree granting, and
it became accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association
of Colleges and Schools. Not only did this raise the level of training at MD
Anderson, but the school provided Anderson with many of the people who would
become leaders in the technical support of the important clinical work done at
the cancer center. Mike was the founding Dean of the School of Health
Professions and the director of the King Foundation High School Program for
younger budding scientists, including my son.

         Mike’s contributions to MD Anderson’s programs were
legendary, but his contribution to the spirit that was MD Anderson was even
more so. He was the kindest, most considerate mentor one could ever have. He was
respectful of all people and it was clear that the love he had for Joyce and
for his God empowered the work he did. Every speaker at the celebration, of
which there were several from all walks of life, his and theirs, noted the
grace of his presence and his comportment. I will add my voice to that for both
he and Joyce were powerful forces for good in my life as well.

         But on Saturday, Mike had one last gift for me.

         Gathered with me in the pews of River Oaks Baptist was a
group of MD Anderson faculty and staff who came to pay their respects to Mike.
This group included Andy and Madeleine von Eschenbach, Steve Tomasovic, Stu
Zimmerman, Steve Stuyck, Pat Mulvey, Mike Frick, Garret Walsh, Melissa Bondy, and
others who I may not have known or seen. Regina Rogers gave a beautiful and
touching eulogy for Mike. But there in that room, in those pews was the heart
and spirit of what MD Anderson used to be. It was a close-knit family that drew
even closer at times of adversity and who provided strength for each other with
the belief in science, medicine, each other and something greater than we were
that was spurring us on in our quest to fight cancer, not necessarily make it
history, for we were all too clear-eyed for that nonsense.

         Mike Ahearn was the greatness of MD Anderson personified.
His death brought together those who believed in that mission of fighting
cancer on all fronts and knowing that the enemy was formidable, but the fight
just and special. And we all knew we worked at a special place.

         It can be like that again. Mike won’t be here to make sure
that it is. But I believe that he is watching and expects that of you and of
me. As he should. As he would.

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