On August 30, 2021, Dr. Jun Kawakami lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Just as he touched so many people in his life – his death has left a large hole in the hearts of many. Jun was an amazing father, husband, son, friend, and surgeon. Despite his short time on this earth, he left behind countless lessons. Dr. Julie Hong, Jun’s cherished partner over the past almost three decades, summarized some of them:
1. He knew that the most important person in the operating room was the patient.
2. When he learned new skills and techniques, it was incredibly frustrating and he wanted to quit many times. He had to push himself out of his comfort zone with each new technique – but he knew that growth comes from discomfort. He constantly tried for challenging cases, even though that meant he was constantly in some kind of mild discomfort.
3. However, he never pushed himself too far outside of his comfort zone – knowing that this could adversely impact patient lives. When he was going through chemotherapy, he stopped working, because “the OR is not a playground. People’s lives are at stake. I don’t want to hurt anyone because I’m not at 100%”. He counselled new urologists to do simpler cases first, get comfortable and then slowly push.
4. He was always striving to be a better surgeon. He was never finished learning. He spent countless hours reviewing his own cases by video, taking notes, and finding ways to improve. He studied cases days before they were scheduled, making the anesthetists and nurses aware of any potential difficulties. He avoided most bad outcomes by being prepared and communicating with everyone beforehand.
5. When he did have a bad outcome he took responsibility. He felt guilty but he was not debilitated – most importantly he realized it wasn’t about his discomfort – it was all about the patient. He laid his ego down and did everything he could to make reparations.
6. Whenever he got into a crisis situation in the operating room, he recognized his role as leader, and set the tone and energy in the room. He realized that getting angry and panicking those in the room was detrimental to everyone. He was calm in crisis, because he knew his demeanor directly affected outcome. It was never chaos working with him.
7. The first thing he did after every case was call each patients’ loved ones. He knew how worried they would be. He even called after a simple circumcision.
8. In difficult times, he always asked for help. He did not care about his own ego or reputation – he realized it wasn’t about him. He recognized the value of asking for help. He knew that he had surrounded himself with amazing people that he could draw on for support.
9. He always said what was on his mind and stuck up for what he thought was right. He did this out of respect for everyone he worked with. He respected people enough to give them a chance to grow by saying, “hey what you are doing is not right, make a different choice, make the healing choice”. This cultivated a group of people around him that he deeply admired, trusted, respected and loved.
10. He wanted people to know that as a friend, colleague, and doctor he could always be relied on to show up. This is the true tribute of Dr. Kawakami and his true legacy. How to be. How to live. How to love.
In this time of loss and reflection, Dr. Kawakami would remind us to do the right thing even if it is not rewarded. Be respectful. Ask for help. Tell people how much you appreciate them. Take responsibility for the energy you bring. Be grateful for every moment that you get the privilege to work and to help people.
Those left behind can honor Dr. Kawakami by thinking about the kind of person he was, how much he loved his job, how he would have given everything to be back in the OR.
Live honorably, push yourself to grow even if it means some discomfort, keep your whole heart open and share kindness freely – live like Jun.