Comrade Will Reese—A Celebration and Commemoration, May 14, 2016

Dr. Tomer Mark

May 23, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


I first met Bobby in January 2012—he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma at Columbia University-New York Presbyterian hospital the prior month after a medical workup was done for anemia. He had been referred to me by a hematology fellow at Columbia who had thought the case deserved a second look.

For those unfamiliar with the disease, multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells—the cells that produce all of the antibodies we have circulating within us. Antibodies are proteins that we create to help fight infections. In multiple myeloma, the antibodies are produced to such a degree that illness develops. Persons with myeloma suffer from bone fractures due to invasion of bone-weakening plasma cells, kidney failure due to the excessive antibodies clogging up our blood filtration system like hair in a drain, anemia due to bone marrow infiltration by the cancer, and a highly increased risk of infection. You would think that infections would be decreased if antibody levels are high, but in truth the antibody made by myeloma cells is dysfunctional and only serves to crowd out other healthy useful antibodies.

Needless to say, Bobby was a fighter and certainly beat the odds for a very tough disease when he passed away this past February, about four years after his initial diagnosis. Along the way, he went through an astonishing seven lines of chemotherapy treatment and persevered through many harrowing trials involving his health. As one of his lines of therapy, he participated in a clinical trial of a new antibody therapy for myeloma, thus making a true contribution to myeloma research. The antibody was eventually approved by the FDA and is quickly becoming standard of care for our patients. He actively participated in his health care and chemotherapy decisions, which surely contributed to his better than expected survival. In the last year of his life, however, his health deteriorated greatly. He had lost about 20% of his body weight, had been in the hospital numerous times for infection and to control myeloma relapses, and had been left very weak. Despite the decline in his health, Bobby remained ultimately independent and committed to his work.

It was his work calling out injustice in our society and as a community organizer that shaped our relationship. Being of liberal political leanings myself and following news stories was not enough preparation for the force of nature that was Bobby Hill. Coming to clinic each time with a copy of Revolution, I learned as much about the world as Bobby learned about myeloma.

Bobby and I had a relationship that extended beyond the norm for a doctor and patient. Bobby and I often spent as much time during clinic visits talking about the latest incidents of police brutality, restriction of reproductive rights for women, and general income inequality, as we did talking about multiple myeloma. Sometimes, we got so lost in our discussions that we only switched the topic to his myeloma once we had realized that our visit time was almost over. He opened up to me about his life as a community activist; I admired how he gave up many personal comforts for the sake of a greater good and a vision of a more ideal human society.

I learned a great deal about the human psyche, history, and politics from Bobby. He opened my eyes to issues affecting real people that made mainstream media generated content seem as insipid as a Keeping up with the Kardashians episode. In turn, I opened up to him about my personal life and travails as an academic physician in a huge hospital system. True to his chosen profession, he listened to me talk about my life and offered insight that enriched my views about the world and medicine in general.

Although at the time Bobby succumbed, he had very advanced myeloma with a very taxed immune system, his passing struck me (and the other staff at the myeloma center) like a physical blow to the chest, knocking the wind out of me. Although it’s never easy or trivial, one gets familiar with death as an oncologist. His passing was different—it saddened me like the death of a close friend, which, upon reflection, I realized he was to me.

I will miss Bobby—he will always have a place in my heart and memory as a transcendent personality, revolutionary, intellect, and humanist. He will never be forgotten.

Tomer Mark, MD, MS


A Life Lived for Revolution:
Comrade Will Reese—
A Celebration and Commemoration



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