Mind Over Medicine

Dr. Paul Hamilton refused to let his patients meekly accept their cancer.

Dr. Paul Hamilton always chose his own path. Sometimes he created one out of thin air. Or sand. His son Skip recalls one such incident more than forty years ago in Egypt. Taking his family on an adventure, the Denver physician drove a station wagon into a stretch of desert where there were no roads.

"Of course we got stuck," recalls Skip with a laugh, "and before we knew it, we were stranded." Hamilton didn't panic at the notion of being trapped in the hot sand with his wife and young children. His calmness spread to those around him.

"I suppose looking back on it now, it was a risky situation," Skip says, "but we always trusted him to pull us out of harm's way."

After a few hours, a camel caravan came upon the lost Americans and led them to the safety of a nearby monastery.

"A week spent with Egyptian monks--that was my father's idea of a vacation," says Skip. "But that was the way we grew up. Life was always an adventure for my father. Every year he would take a month or two off from the hospital to go out and help some tribe in Kenya or bounce from boat to boat in Hong Kong giving checkups to the boat people, and he always brought us along with him. I can remember being out in some remote part of Africa wondering, 'What the heck is going on?' and Dad would give me some equipment and tell me to start pricking fingers for blood tests. I was fourteen years old! But it never dawned on any of us that something bad could happen. We just had an inherent trust in our leader."

By the early Nineties, Paul Hamilton was nearing seventy. The chief of medical oncology at Presbyterian Medical Center, he had spent his career trying to bring hope and peace to people coping with cancer. He had co-founded CanSurmount, which grew into an international network of cancer survivors. And he had started QuaLife, a Denver-based support group and home base for those facing cancer. By this time, he had spent most of his life looking for paths through the dreaded disease. Kathryn Perkey, who works at the Tattered Cover Book Store, remembers those efforts vividly. "Paul used to rollerblade into the store," she recalls, "and we would talk about new books that could possibly help his patients ease their fears and anxieties."

Last May, Perkey was diagnosed with cancer. "It was such a shock when the cancer became my own," she says. "All of a sudden, I was confronted by the mortality which Paul and I had always talked about." Hamilton, she says, helped her see cancer as a "bump in the road," not a death sentence.

And then, about two months later, Hamilton discovered that he had cancer. After surgery to remove a spot on his lung, he died of respiratory complications. But his life still reverberates.

Paul Hamilton's admirers like to point out that, although he was a skilled physician, his true talent was in giving people hope in seemingly hopeless situations--without being a cheerleader type. A patient's spiritual and mental approach to cancer was as important, he believed, as any actual medical treatment.

"One of the most amazing things about Paul," says a colleague, Dr. David Garfield, "was his ability to spend two minutes with a patient and leave them with the feeling that he'd just talked to them for twenty."

Time often stood still for Hamilton. M.L. Frohling of the Family Healing Network, who started working with Hamilton in 1981, says Hamilton was always searching for new ways to not only improve his patients' spiritual awareness but work on his own as well.

"Paul used to meditate quite a bit," Frohling recalls, "especially before he made his rounds. And occasionally, he would climb a tree and meditate up in the branches. Not too long ago, Paul was at the Denver Country Club when he saw a particularly attractive tree. He parked his bike underneath it, hung some prayer flags, then climbed up and started meditating. After a few minutes of meditation, he fell sound asleep up in the branches--only to be awakened by the sound of someone riding off on his bike. The guy obviously had no idea Paul was up in the tree and thought that the bike had been abandoned, so Paul had to scramble down and chase after him to explain."

Hamilton's eccentricities, though, never seemed to overshadow his work, which to him was talking with patients.

His former partner Garfield notes that "oncology by nature breeds a very personal relationship between doctor and patient." But Hamilton, he says, was even closer to his patients than the typical oncologist. His patients' response to him, says Garfield, bordered on worship.

"Even though he always had coffee stains and tobacco burns on his jackets and his shoes were never polished," Garfield recalls with a smile, "everybody knew he had class. What was more important to him than looking sharp was spending time with his patients. And even though he always had a lot of work, he was never hurried. He was a man of few words and he spoke very slowly, but what he said was pure quality."

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