Canzano: Leave some room for the heart
One 'bucket list' that delivered.
The email arrived 17 years ago this week. I’ll never forget it. Dr. Jeffrey Werner, a cardiologist, had a question for me. He wanted to know if I’d ask Trail Blazers’ coach Nate McMillan when he planned to play Dan Dickau.
I thought the same thing, at first. It turns out the good doctor was dealing with a terrible dose of reality instead. He had terminal lung cancer. Werner was short on time and needed to know when Dickau, a reserve guard, would play.
“I have my reasons,” he wrote.
Werner never smoked. He ate well, took yoga classes, and did everything we’re supposed to do to stay healthy. At age 60, the physician received a terrible diagnosis — he was dying and there was nothing the medical community could do to stop it. It would be a terrible end. After a few weeks of moping, Werner pulled himself together and decided to wring every drop out of the time he had left. The doctor crafted a bucket list on a notepad.
Among the items he’d already checked off by the time we met:
Family vacation to Italy.
Trip to Bora Bora with his wife.
Stand on the tip of the Big Island in Hawaii and catch the wind in a giant gourd.
Perform a good deed.
Take a walk with his two sons.
Spend time with his stepdaughter, MacKenzie.
Still on his list:
Watch Dan Dickau make a three-point basket in person.
How are you doing today? What’s on your bucket list? Every Christmas I think about Dr. Werner’s dying wish and how he seized his final days with both hands. He’d graduated first in his class at USC Medical School, saved lives, poured himself into research, opened clinics, mentored other doctors and became one of the foremost experts on the human heart.
Werner was an influential figure in the Seattle-area medical scene in the middle of his career. He founded a non-profit, too. The Seattle Times Magazine did a cover story on him in the 1980’s titled: “Caring in the Coronary Unit.” And when he was looking for a challenge later in his career, Werner relocated to Arkansas and developed a world-class heart program at St. Mary’s Hospital.
After that, Dr. Werner moved to Oregon to practice.
That’s where I met him. He and his wife, Lori, became friends. But it all started over that email that he sent asking about Dickau, his favorite ex-Gonzaga basketball player. I went to a Blazers’ practice, pulled McMillan aside, and explained that all we needed to know was when Dickau might get in a game.
Dr. Werner didn’t want to be a bother. He’d purchased tickets to two prior Portland home games, and sat in the crowd, waiting to see if Dickau might get in and make a three-point shot. After the second unsuccessful trip to the NBA arena, a disappointed Werner came home and crafted that email.
So when would Dickau play?
“You’d better bring him to practice,” McMillan told me.
I did exactly that the following day. Werner and I met for coffee not far from the Blazers’ practice facility in the suburbs of Portland. We talked about our children and life. He told me all about his bucket list, which was nearing completion.
He’d rented a villa 90 miles south of Florence, Italy, where he drank wine and sat around at night telling stories with his children. He’d caught tropical wind in a gourd, traveled, and connected with his kids. Werner explained that he’d watched Dickau play at Gonzaga and loved his shot. He needed to see the made basket.
The doctor left one thing out.
It was an important detail.
Turns out, there was more to the story than just seeing Dan Dickau make a three-point shot. But I don’t blame the guy for keeping a secret. He was bound by a professional oath and the law, after all.
More on that in a bit.
But you should know that when Werner and I arrived, McMillan came straight over. He summoned Dickau and the four of us huddled and talked. I watched as a 60-year-old man facing his mortality forgot about his cancer for a moment. Dr. Jeffrey Werner might as well have been 10 or 12, meeting his favorite athlete.
He couldn’t stop grinning.
McMillan and I watched it unfold from the side of the court as Dickau made his first three-point shot. Then, another and another. The two men talked — fan and player — then they dribbled around, taking turns shooting. I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene. At one point, Werner got a shooting tutorial from Dickau, who shagged balls for the doctor.
It was perfect.
I don’t know if you’re struggling with the complicated landscape of sports these days. The top stories often involve lawsuits, greed, accusations and suspensions. The college football transfer portal and NIL rules had good intentions, but they’re now fueling a tidal wave of unrestricted free agency. The NCAA is fighting extinction. The Pac-12 is on life support. And the so-called “playoff” left out a 13-0 team.
Amid that, I find myself thinking about Dr. Werner’s bucket list and the way we’re all so intricately connected. His mission was filled with soulful things. His eyes danced when he spoke about his wife and children. And his heart sang when he stood with Dickau, who didn’t miss a shot that day.
That Dickau three-point basket wasn’t the only reason Dr. Werner was thrilled about being at the practice facility. Because when it was over, he asked McMillan if he might have a word with him.
“I’m violating my oath,” Werner told him, “but I want to tell you something.”
McMillan listened closely.
“You had a heart issue in Seattle, remember?”
Decades before, the former NBA basketball player had a heart issue. It required a surgery that was handled quietly. Nobody could have known the details. McMillan was “Mr. Sonic” himself. The Seattle hospital where he had the procedure, summoned the most gifted cardiologist in the area to consult.
“That was me,” Dr. Werner told him. “I’ve seen your heart.”
McMillan was floored.
I told that story at Jeffrey Werner’s funeral service months later. His family asked me to speak at the event. People smiled and marveled at the twist in the story. In the visits I had with Werner before his death, he got progressively weaker. His weight dropped. His eyes sunk. But he always wore the same two things — a smile and a Dan Dickau basketball jersey.
Werner knew he had an expiration date. Most of us don’t. He behaved like a guy who was short on time. I wonder how different we’d live if we knew. It’s a good thing Werner reached out to me and went to practice, too. Because the Blazers traded Dickau to the Clippers not long after that shooting session.
We’re all rushing around, trying to meet deadlines and make Christmas happen. Have you finished your shopping? Mailed the holiday greeting cards? Are you ready for the festivities? If that grinning cardiologist can serve as reminder today, be sure to leave room for matters of the heart.
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