A tribute to Joel's friend Joe
Written on November 21, 2000
Over the years I had developed a special relationship with many ex-smokers. I have had over 4,500 smokers go through my clinic and during the first few weeks I had intense contact with all of them. As time passed though, contact became more sporadic and most of them I just kept in touch with through the letters I wrote and occasional phone calls. Basically I kept in touch with them but they didn’t keep in touch with me. There were exceptions to this rule though, people who have kept regular contact with me years and even decades after quitting. Yesterday I lost one of these people. His name was Joe.
I met Joe on March 16, 1982 when he came to a stop smoking clinic I was conducting. He came in with his secretary that I could see was dragged in under protest. He felt he could not quit without her quitting too. I really pushed the point with them both that they needed to quit for themselves. Joe stood out as a special case from day one with me. Joe was the heaviest smoker I had met up to that point. There have been a few I met after that, two who actually smoked more, but none that I had developed such a special rapport with. Joe smoked 5 packs per day and I think it was for a little over 40 years. To say the least, Joe was skeptical of his chances for success.
Joe was a colorful character from day one. He got mean and ornery his first few days. Was firing people around him left and right. Joe normally had control over every aspect of his life; always felt if he could make up his mind he could accomplish anything. Most things in life he set out to do he eventually pulled off–all except quitting smoking. This one had Joe and he knew if he kept up at his current rate he was going to be in trouble. He had some conditions that if he didn’t quit, he knew he was not going to last more than a few years. His doctors had said it and he personally felt it.
Well Joe did quit and quickly he became enthused on the idea of everybody quitting. He knew if he could quit with his smoking history, anyone could quit. He would drag people into the clinic over the years, the same he did with his secretary. Often kicking and screaming but Joe didn’t mind a few bruises. Not only did he drag in people he knew, he ended up adopting many people he met at the clinic. Joe became one of my regular panelists, coming to probably over a hundred of my clinics over our 18 years together. Not a month went by that Joe and I had not kept up regular contact either by coming to a panel, seeing him at his office or he dropping in at mine.
Three years ago Joe was diagnosed with a very dangerous form of cancer. I remember the day I found out. I was sitting in my hospital lobby, about to start a meeting that night for I was in the middle of a clinic. At the time, my father was suffering from congestive heart failure in critical condition at the hospital; my mother was at another hospital just having had surgery for cancer. I was commuting between the two hospitals that were 18 miles apart throughout the day. My life was in quite an upheaval at the moment. In walked Joe’s wife who told me the news about Joe. I was devastated by that news. With all that was happening around me at that point, Joe’s situation had me as concerned as what was happening in my own family. I knew I always had a special place and feeling for Joe, but it was at that moment that I knew how strong it had become.
Joe opted for a pretty radical surgery and decided against chemo or radiation therapy. Even with such treatment, Joe was not expected to survive more the 18 months. Within a week of being released from the hospital, Joe was at my clinic as a panelist. He could hardly talk at the time but being there was very important to Joe. He had began to feel the importance of time, and wanted to share this new found understanding with anyone he could for as long as he could.
Joe ended up making a miraculous recovery. He got stronger and stronger and relatively quickly got back to his normal rigorous schedule. Joe always did everything to the extreme, work was no exception. He expanded his business and pushed his limits in all directions, his commitment to helping me in clinics showed no bounds either. As weeks turned to months turned to almost three years we all thought he had beaten incredible odds.
On July 31, I dropped into Joe’s office unannounced. I always dropped in unannounced so this was nothing new to us. I had made a major major life decision and change at the time and Joe was the first person I went to officially tell. He was very concerned as always, but at the same time I was there he was trying to help another friend who had been going through a very traumatic life experience. It was amazing that whenever I was there he was doing this with many different people. In the middle of running a very busy company he was helping somebody with something. It was always something to see.
Anyway, I had no clinic panels after July 31 for Joe to serve on and for one of the first time in 18 years I didn’t have any real contact with Joe for almost three months. I had a panel session coming up on December 1, my first since then and I called Joe’s office to invite him in. When I called I got his secretary who was noticeable quiet. She said Joe was in the hospital and things weren’t looking good. Actually for a few days he wasn’t receiving visitors, but last Friday Joe knew things were winding down and he wanted to give everyone the opportunity to say goodbye. I went there that day right after a lecture, Joe was basically semiconscious, he knew who I was but couldn’t communicate. From the way he looked I thought that would be my last contact with Joe.
But again, Joe seemed to make a miraculous comeback. The next day I went to see him and he was able to write to me. Joe’s cancer had spread to his epiglottis and he could not talk and would not be able to again without surgery that he was not a candidate for. He wrote notes to everyone who came to visit.
His first notes to me were asking about a clinic participant he met three years earlier, wanting to know if he had quit. He was a younger man who had a similar life to Joe and who he encountered a few times at various clinics for this particular man had quit and relapsed a few times. Joe wanted to know his current status. I told him I would contact him and let him know that evening. The man had just relapsed a week earlier, he was convinced that his wife had called me to snitch on him and when I told him of Joe’s plight, he was there the next morning. It has been a week now and he is still off smoking.
I spent a lot of last week with Joe. Stayed through the night at the hospital one night and saw him everyday. We always had someone with him, 24 hours a day for all the weeks he was there. Saturday I went in the morning. I was going to the Northwestern/Illini football game at 11 am, and it was very cold that morning. Joe was really weak and couldn’t write, but was gesturing to just talk while I was with him so I told him I was going to the game and other small talk issues, not really sure he was hearing me or understanding me. All of a sudden he had a burst of energy, grabbed a not pad and started writing to me how to dress and what to go buy to stay warm at the game. I could see he was really concerned about my being cold. He was pushing me to go so I would have time to go by the products and make it to the game in time.
I went to see him Saturday night but Joe had taken a turn for the worst. I visited a little with his wife and went home. Sunday morning too he was too weak to communicate although you could see he knew we were there. Sunday night I arrived at the hospice about 7:30 pm, and stayed with him while his wife and some other friends who were with him all day went down to the lounge to get some food. I was with him about 40 minutes when his nurse came in and saw his vital signs were very weak. At 9 pm they started calling the remainder his family to come in. Some people traveled over a hundred miles that night to get there. I stayed until 2 am, but as his out of town family and friends were arriving through the night and there were many people there by then, probably about 20. We were being told that it could be hours or maybe a full day so I decided to go home and get some sleep. I went back about 9:15 am but Joe had passed away at 8:35 am.
One of the people who were there when I arrived was his secretary he dragged into the clinic 18 years earlier. She was still smoke free and knew it was only because of Joe that she initially quit. I had not seen her in over 10 years since she left his employment. Joe’s funeral is Wednesday, and I know I will be seeing many past clinic participants. As I said, Joe dragged in a lot of people over the years. Joe kept his smoking clinic diploma in great prominence over his work area. Besides this, I periodically made him a special diploma that stated his statistics. I made one for him on November 11, the day I went to see him at the hospital. His statistics were impressive and he wanted them up for everyone to see. Joe had been off smoking for 6,815 days for a total over 681,500 cigarettes not smoked.
I think Joe would have wanted me to share his story. His message of the value of time and to do everything to buy as much quality time as you can was something he would have wanted to share. He recognized quitting smoking as giving him many extra years and greater health and vitality, even after the cancer was first diagnosed. As I said earlier, his level of enthusiasm for smoking cessation never wavered, even in the face of eminent death not smoking was a message he wanted to share. The other message he would want to say is that if he could quit, anyone could quit. He also hated excuses. I know he would have wanted me to share that too.
So this one is for Joe. We would want you all to know that if he could do it, so could everyone of you. For 18 years Joe was smoke free. I know for a fact that Joe not only shared the motto with many othersbut also lived it himself. He would want you to know that you could live a lot longer and happier if you never take another puff!
Following is an article by Jack Mabley, Daily Herald, March 18, 1991, on the commemoration of my 100th Community Stop Smoking Clinic at the hospital where I worked at the time. My friend Joe was referenced in this article, in the paragraph starting “The champion of the group and once again in the paragraph starting “I brought my secretary.” Thought this would add some background to Joe’s story.
Clinic Does More Than Blow Smoke
Stop-Smoking Zealot’s Nagging Really Works
Mark Twain said, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
A man who quit smoking said they told him it would make him a new man. “It did,” he said. “Adolph Hitler.”
When you smoke you’re in the “deadly and iron clad grip of the nicotine addiction.” So says Joel Spitzer, coordinator of the Stop Smoking Clinic at Rush North Shore Medical Center.
Last week, 60 of the most cheerful, healthy looking people I’ve seen in one room gathered at Rush North Shore to help Spitzer celebrate his 100th clinic. In 13 years nearly 4,000 smokers have come to the clinics. Fifty-four percent of them have kicked the habit, permanently.
I don’t know of any program that can match that record.
Spitzer handed out certificates of achievement to the 60 people, congratulating each on stopping smoking. For each one he calculated the number of cigarettes they have not smoked since they stopped.
A person who smoked a pack a day and quit two years ago represented 14,600 unsmoked cigarettes.
The champion in the group, who kicked a five-packs-a-day habit in 1982, would have smoked 325,116 cigarettes since then if he hadn’t stopped. That would be worth about $14,000. The whole room totaled some 4 million.
I asked two doctors about their experience. “I smoked for 46 years,” said Dr. Andrew Thomson. “I started in college…I thought it was the sophisticated thing to do. Once I was off for two weeks after hypnosis. I figured it was easy. I could stop and start at will. I was wrong.
“Joel convinced me I was addicted.”
Dr. Dennis Weber, a dentist, smoked two to four packs a day for 35 years. “Most of the kids I grew up with were smoking at 14,” he said.
Both doctors regularly come back to the clinic to reinforce their resolve to avoid taking another puff and to give encouragement to people trying to quit.
The spirit at last week’s meeting was like one big pep rally. Everyone gave a little talk after getting his or her certificate. The group was about evenly male and female, all economic levels, ages mostly 30s and up.
One woman had been to 13 clinics, was thrown out of the last commercial one, and finally kicked the habit under Spitzer’s haranguing. He’s a nag. After smokers leave the clinic, he keeps in touch with them, with letters, phone calls, and 24-hour availability if they crave a puff and have to be talked out of it.
“If I hadn’t stopped I wouldn’t be alive today” was the response of many.
“My family thanks me weekly…sometimes daily.”
“It’s one of the most amazing things in the world that I got unhooked from something that is so terrifyingly addictive.”
“You mean I haven’t smoked 114,900 cigarettes since I quit? How’d you get that number? It happens to be the exact number of Lotto tickets I’ve bought.”
“I thank you, my husband thanks you, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, and my 7-year-old thanks you.” (I thank her too. She used to hide her cigarette when I came into her office in the hospital.)
“I brought my secretary to the clinic. There were three people in my office, and I knew I couldn’t make it alone. I’m off now, and so is my secretary. The third person in our office, who pooh-poohed us, lost one lung to cancer, then got emphysema. He’s dead.”
“I’m happy and I never think about cigarettes.”
One man told about going to a business meeting at Philip Morris. When Spitzer learned he was going to the meeting, he traced him to a Detroit hotel and woke him at 6:30 a.m. to warn him not to take another puff.
“There were 22 of us around the table at that meeting at Philip Morris,” the former smoker related, “and would you believe it, not a single person smoked.”
Commentary written November 20, 2010 on the Freedom from Nicotine board
We are coming up on the 10th anniversary of Joe’s passing. I actually think we had a string that I used to pop up annually but it may have been lost at our migration a couple of years ago.
One of the updates I believe I added to that string was the attachment of the following video I made in 2006, where I talked about Joe and his participation at one of my follow-up meetings.
I always smile when I think of Joe’s story at that meeting.
Related resource page: I’ll come for reinforcement when I need it