We’ve a policy here in UMagville against writing about Johns Hopkins Magazine or any of the divisional publications that go forth from the university. When we created UMagazinology, we decided it would be important to avoid any suggestion that our intent was to promote Johns Hopkins or any of its magazines. The blog has always been about the big Us—alumni magazines everywhere—not the small Us.
But Johns Hopkins Public Health, edited by Brian Simpson, recently did something extraordinary that I think is worth describing. It devoted the entirety of its latest issue to death. Stories about people trying to figure out if the buried remnants of bioweapons research are killing people, stories about mortality demographics, mortality among new mothers in countries like Ghana, public health’s slow embrace of end-of-life issues, how investigating the causes of death saves lives, and so-called verbal autopsies. Features are supplemented by Q&As and essays written by alumni. (The magazine solicited the latter, and posted more than two dozen responses on its website.)
In an editor’s note that appears on the last page of the magazine, Simpson writes:
I wanted to avoid death and its unpleasant reality. However, that’s not what public health is about. Public health is not about flowers and sunshine. It’s not about eyes averted. Its purpose is not to avoid but engage with our most intimate adversary—to stare, to probe, to investigate, to understand, and then to fight. All with the promise of making a difference and saving lives.
The issue is very well done, starting with its cover, which is a photograph, cropped close, of the face of a dead 50-year-old Bangladeshi woman, Nyati Sarkar, with a traditional basil leaf placed over her closed eye. Editorial content is divided into three sections titled “Death and Data,” “Death and Lifespan,” and “Death and Learning.” The features are all worth reading, but my favorite writing in the magazine turned out to be one of the essays. Marcelo Cardarelli, a cardiac surgeon whose whole professional life has been devoted to intervening to prevent death, ponders the day he found a mortally injured deer on his property and brought it water:
I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps when my own end is near and inevitable, all I really want, all I will really need is a compassionate human being to order one less test, one less procedure, while taking the time to stand by me and help me take that last sip of water before I die.
Simpson’s son, Colt, has the final say in his father’s note. Simpson pére had recently visited the office of the chief medical examiner in Maryland.
At some point after my visit to the medical examiner’s office, I had an enlightening (and lightening) conversation with my son. I often ask him big questions out of the blue to gain insight into a 7-year-old’s world. I asked him what he would like to do with his life. He thought a moment and then said, “Spend more time with it.”
You’re right, kiddo. You’re right.