Joel Blank Joel Blank

By Carol Preston

I lost the dearest of friends last month. For those of you connected with the life sciences, you may know the name Joel Blank, a Yale-educated PhD who helped develop and win FDA approval for MRI, magnetic resonance imaging.

Joel also co-founded five start-up companies. But Joel’s true passion was his family: Paula, his wife of 52 years, daughters Stephanie (Jay Musoff) and Carolyn (David) Morris, and most especially his four grandchildren—Madeleine, Charlie, Gracie and Will. Joel poured his heart and soul into loving his family and creating memories.

Will the rest of us do the same?

Joel and I had been friends for more than three decades. In 2009, our lives intersected in a way that neither of us could have anticipated. Joel was diagnosed with multiple myeloma the year I had relapsed with CLL. Now, more than friendship tied us together. We shared a common goal: to beat these blood cancers. The difference was that Joel already had beaten cancer once—prostate cancer nine years earlier. He was a veteran of this ugly war.

When I relapsed, I was terrified. I thought, “This is the end.” I needed to be talked off the ledge. Rather than picking up the phone, I fly from Washington, DC to San Francisco to visit Joel. I was getting ready to start a new round of chemo. Joel was preparing for a stem cell transplant.

Memory retention is only about 10 percent, so I don’t remember much from that weekend. But what did stick with me were Joel’s parting words as I headed to the airport, “Carol, it’s a game. Think of the latest treatment as a bridge to get you to the next treatment. There are always new treatments. You’re going to be fine.”

And he was right. More than that, I wasn’t alone. My friend for three-and-a-half decades had taken on a new role, that of clinical mentor—someone who understood EXACTLY how I felt, who had walked this walk, and would walk with me on a journey we both could have done without.

Joel faced a recovery far tougher than many of us could have imagined, let alone handled. Post-transplant, he contracted Guillan Barré Syndrome and fought for two years—successfully—to get out of a wheelchair. What’s remarkable is that Joel never wavered from his passion for family and his mission to create those memories—no small task since his children and grandchildren lived on the East Coast. He and Paula flew to as many events as possible, including swim meets and awards ceremonies. He talked politics and science and music with the kids, treating them as valuable verbal sparring partners. Yes, Paul and Joel were blessed with resources to travel with their families to several countries. But yes, Joel sometimes toured in that wheelchair.

He didn’t complain. And he always kept in sight his goal of touching so many lives, especially his family.

You see, Joel decided that he didn’t have time for cancer. Physical therapy to recover from paralysis was exhausting. It also drove Joel to push harder to capture more family time, to create more memories. And once out of the wheelchair, Joel walked every day to build his strength.

Twice last year for Patient Power and the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), I interviewed Joel’s doctor, Tom Martin of UCSF about the latest research in multiple myeloma. I would send Joel my video interviews, and like a proud older brother, he would watch them and comment. Tom Martin gushed about his star patient—Joel’s spirit, his fierce, unwavering determination to push through every medical adversity thrown in his path.

Except the one he didn’t see coming.

Joel on January 24, 2015 died of a stroke, which struck swiftly and, ironically, while he was taking one of those strength-building walks. He was 72. The end came quickly. He didn’t suffer. Everyone who spoke at his funeral (including me) regarded Joel as a best friend. His teenaged grandchildren shared warm, detailed stories about their “Papa Joel.” So many ingrained memories.

Can the rest of us say the same? What memories have we forged with our children, grandkids, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters? Are they enough? Can we do more? Will we allow our cancer to consume our lives or, like Joel Blank, live larger than the cancer and, memorably touch the lives of family and friends? I vow to try harder. I wish this for you as well.