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She was so young to be so old. So special. You knew it the minute she walked in the door.

“Hi,” she said with a smile. “I’m Lisa Marino.”

A doctor who doesn’t call herself doctor? Pretty savvy. And pretty smart. So smart, it was sometimes scary.

“You see,” she said, pointing to my MRI, “the narrow mid-sagittal spinal-canal diameter increases risk of severe neurological injury…”

“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “In English, please.”

“OK,” she said, with a sweet, sarcastic smile. “I’ll dumb it down for you. Your spine is now living in a smaller house. Did you get that? Or do you want me to speak slower?”

She was a pioneer, Lisa Marino. The first woman partner on the wall of the lobby picture gallery at her Marlton medical practice. Even though she looked like she was still in college.

I would see her every week, and she would stick this long needle in my neck and shoulders to break up the knots that had formed since I saw her last. And she nailed it every time.

She had become so popular to those in pain, it became hard to get an appointment with her.

“Can you fit me in next week?” I would ask.

“Sure,” she said, “what time do you want to come?”

 “I can come early, if that helps you. What time do you start?”

“What time can you get here?” she said.

And she came in early, before office hours, to make sure she could help me. She understood people and she understood pain.

“I know what you mean,” she would say when I came in grimacing. “Some mornings you wake up and you just don’t know how you’re going to make it through the day.”

Exactly. But how did she know that?

She always managed to hide the days she felt terrible. “You don’t sound so good.” I would tell her. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” she would say. “I just have a sinus thing.”

But the “sinus thing” wasn’t a sinus thing. Next to no one knew about it, because she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the people she helped.

There was something about Lisa Marino, something she never told anyone but family. She had cystic fibrosis. It was a daily struggle that she managed quietly. Morning and night, she gave herself treatments, treatments that allowed her to breathe better, treatments that allowed her to live better. To see more patients. To help more people.

She gave up a career in chemistry to become a doctor, to specialize in physical medicine, to get to know her patients better.

“So, what have you written lately?” she’d ask.

“I wrote a story about a Facebook friend who died pretty suddenly, pretty young. A lot of people said they were crying when they read it.”

“Send me that column,” she said. She scribbled her email address on the back of my appointment card. “We’ll see if it makes a tough doctor cry.”

The next morning, I got an email from her: “Thank you for sharing. It was very poignant. I cried too. The piece reminds us to appreciate and respect the frailty of all our lives, which we sometimes look past too easily. Thanks! Lisa”

Over time and needles, we became friends. Fifteen minutes at a time. We talked about life and politics and people. But then she always had to run to the next patient. “Maybe we should start meeting at a coffee shop,” she said. “We’ll have more time to talk. I’ll even bring my needles,” she laughed.

It was the last thing she ever said to me. Two days later, Lisa Marino went into the hospital for “a procedure.” And she never came back. There was an infection. It seriously damaged her lungs. There were complications. And then the craziest thing in the world happened. Lisa Marino, who gave her life to make others better, died. She was 40.

June 2015
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