BROOKINGS – A well-known and well-respected Brookings physician, healer, writer and purveyor of homespun wisdom on a wealth of issues is gone. After a 3 1/2-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Dr. Richard “Rick” Holm, 71, died at home in hospice on March 22, 2020.
“I’m going to be dead pretty soon,” Holm told The Brookings Register in an interview on March 11. “I’m trying to deal with it. It’s dangerous to be fearful of death. When you start running from it, it’s a bad omen.”
No running from it for him. Holm faced death with that courage Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” The doctor’s death was in keeping with his latest book: “Life’s Final Season: A Guide for Aging and Dying with Grace.”
As a physician, Holm observed the fear of death hundreds, maybe thousands of times in his patients and helped them through it. However, he never counseled them to accept death as he wanted to accept it.
“I don’t push it upon them,” he explained. “Every time I come upon a dying patient who has a terminal illness – and I’ve helped a lot of patients through death – I don’t impose my philosophy or beliefs on them, unless they say, ‘Come on, come here, talk to me about the spirit.’
“I don’t give prayers. I give an open heart. I don’t think it’s right for me to impose any religious beliefs on another. But if they ask me to walk in that garden, I’ll go there.
”We all die. To bring somebody to accept the end of their life is ultimately a physician’s responsibility.”
In a model that bears her name, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross theorizes five stages of dying that a person, such as one who is terminally ill, goes through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Did he?
“No one asked me that yet,” Holm said. “I hadn’t thought that myself. But I have preached it, taught it, shared it and written about it. So it’s only fair that I would answer that question.
“So, bargaining? I’ve done my share of bargaining on that. I’ve gone through at least two analytical trials and maybe that’s a bargaining tool.
“I’ve had radiation and surgery and all that. But the hope was that it would give me a longer life, though I don’t know that it hasn’t. I think it has.” He saw his 3 1/2-years-plus of survival since his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer as “a pretty good battle. I think I’ve had a pretty good run at it.”
Justice and compassion
In one aspect of his philosophical and theological approach to life, Holm saw two options: spirituality and no spirituality.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “But if you look back on it, I’m probably inclusive of all religions in the world. Because all of them say the same kind of thing: Religion or churches should bring justice and compassion. But none of them are perfect, of course. All religions have a good faith.
“There’s spirituality and there’s no spirituality. As you go down the spirituality road, I think we should be able to interpret it as a place where we could open our hearts.
“If you go down the non-spiritual road, it’s a lonely, single road. There is no spirit; there is no soul; there is no life after death; there is no essence of heart and love.
“Give love, get love. I can’t imagine not being a caring physician – eventually. You just have to get there if you care for people.
“I think spirit, that whole thing, is voluptuous and green and a beautiful garden. The lonely road of no spirituality is like a desert.
“Find a church. It doesn’t matter which church. Find a church; embrace it; it will help you get to a level of spirituality.”
As the interview with the Register neared its end, Holm surfaced “a social issue that will be gone in 10, 20 years.”
“Right now the country is going through a hard time about cannabinoids – cannabis, marijuana, CBD, hemp. So here is what I would say about that whole line of topics: There is some wonderful relief out there. You don’t have to search very hard for it to work. But there is some really good relief.
“But, boy, when somebody is in pain, this stuff truly makes a difference. It’s given me hope, too. It brings a person out of the shadows.”
Following his Whipple surgery, a five- to six-hour procedure used to remove pancreatic cancer, there were times Holm suffered from severe “belly pain.” But relief was on its way.
“Friends from afar came home and provided me some of Mother Nature’s green weed,” he explained. “My belly pain went away. And not only that, I started having fun again. Watching movies, I was enjoying myself.
“And the danger is much smaller. Seventy-thousand people die of opioids every year. There’s a rescue right there with cannabinoids. Help society turn that around and save lives.”
Live a good life. Pay it forward.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]
Editor’s note: For many years, Holm wrote “The Prairie Doc,” a weekly column in the Register. It will be continued by several of his fellow physicians in Brookings.