Food for Thought: When the Doctor Becomes the Patient

10 Jan 2016

By Nickey Jafari

During my first year of medical school, my class had the honor of having Dr. Jeffrey Piehler, a retired thoracic surgeon, come speak to us. You may know him as the author of the New York Times essay, “Ashes to Ashes but First a Nice Pine Box”. You may also know him as the incredibly talented and dedicated surgeon that he was, being elected into all the major societies for cardiothoracic surgeons.

Jeff Piehler, seen sitting in the pine coffin that he build has passed away.  Credit Shari Hartbauer/Lincoln Journal Star.

In 2002, Dr. Piehler was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This ultimately forced him to retire as he lost sensation in his fingertips from the aggressive treatments he underwent. In “Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box”, Dr. Piehler writes about how, after over a decade-long battle that he knew he would ultimately lose, he decided to build his own coffin. Both in his NYT article and in his lecture to my medical school class, Dr. Piehler reflected on how his diagnosis forced him to confront his own mortality and taught him about what he valued most in his life.

Dr. Piehler passed away on November 14th, 2014 and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to shake his hand. I am sharing this with you today in hopes that you find the time to read more about Dr. Piehler and  to view his documentary, “Patient: A Surgeon’s Journey” (trailer) No words I could ever write would even begin to convey the profound effect he has had on others (both medical professionals and patients). He will be remembered as an impressive surgeon, but more importantly, an inspiring human being.

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Nickey Jafari with Dr. Paul Farmer at the American College of Surgeons 2015 Conference.


Nickey Jafari is a 2nd year medical student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She was born in Tehran, raised in Kansas, and attended Drake University in Iowa for her Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Biochemistry. She is passionate about global health and is interested in how better access to and quality of surgery can help tackle disparities in outcomes.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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