Dr. Robert Buxbaum, Palliative Care Physician, Lived Life Of Principle And Adventure

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Dr. Robert Buxbaum (Courtesy Carl Buxbaum)
Dr. Robert Buxbaum (Courtesy Carl Buxbaum)

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, a Harvard Community Health Plan (HCHP) physician and palliative care doctor, was also devoted to dark chocolate, classical music and the blues.

“He loved music,” remembers Carl Buxbaum, his son. “Often, in the evening, he’d end up on the couch listening to music and pretending to read journals. He had a stack of journals about this tall at the foot of the stairs, and I think I once asked about those and my mom said, 'well, he reads those until he nods off.' ”

Care for the neediest was his life work: Dr. Buxbaum started in the U.S. Public Health Service on an Apache Reservation in Arizona, where the concept of illness and dying as part of life transformed traditional medical views. HCHP was as close as he could get to providing his patients universal health coverage, and he was there for 45 years. Then he opened a clinic in Roxbury, where he worked until he was 83.

But family and friends saw his other side, the one always game for adventure. In his 30s, he took up the oboe.

“Which,” Carl laughed, “he struggled with. He picked it up as an adult and struggled to make a beautiful sound for probably 15 years ... but eventually, he did.”

Some adventures were international. In later years, he and his wife traveled the Canadian Arctic on a Russian icebreaker, kayaked remote areas of Iceland, hiked the Azore islands.

“I once took him on this hair-raising trip out to the Finger Lakes,” Carl recalled. “It was a big lake, and there were whitecaps and we couldn’t find our launch, and it was cold. He didn’t say it, I didn’t say it, but we both said, ‘this is bad’ to ourselves. And I couldn’t tell you what we talked about during that entire trip — just that we spent the time together.”

Outside the bounds of an ordered medical life — that principled, disciplined world of care — Dr. Buxbaum loved indulging pleasures: standing in block-long lines with his four children for the joy of a dripping sundae or the miracle of ice cream mix-ins. There were so many ways to care for others.

(Courtesy Carl Buxbaum)
(Courtesy Carl Buxbaum)

“My mom would say secular humanism, if you want to give it a word. But I like to think of it as just believing this is the life, and this is where we make a difference,” said Carl.

Dr. Buxbaum retired finally after being diagnosed with brain cancer. He lived another year and a half, surrounded in his home by family, caregivers and a nurse practitioner from his palliative care team. On his memorial service booklet, there’s a photo of him flexing a proud bicep, tattooed with an Inuit design. He got it for his 80th birthday (his wife got one, too). Underneath, there’s a quote from Martin Buber, the humanist philosopher:

“I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. ... As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. ... We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.”

This segment aired on May 3, 2017.

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Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.



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