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Essay: What Alex Trebek taught me

  • Jeopardy! contestant Sathvik Namburar poses for a photograph with host Alex Trebek. Namburar, a medical student at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, learned a lesson from Trebek when he was a contestant on the long-running quiz show. (Courtesy Sathvik Namburar)

For the Valley News
Published: 1/10/2020 5:00:50 PM
Modified: 1/11/2020 10:00:11 PM

The theme music began to play, a tune familiar to nearly everyone in the country. This time, however, instead of the hopeful anticipation I usually felt when watching, I was overcome by a palpable tension. The contestants were introduced one-by-one, beginning with me, and then all of a sudden, he appeared from behind the game board, his ever-jovial self. He was Alex Trebek, and this was Jeopardy! And my brief interactions with him would reinforce the way I see my professional field.

While growing up, I became aware of the game show Jeopardy! as a test of contestants’ knowledge, and I aspired to compete on the show. I succeeded on my second attempt this past September, and I hurriedly arranged to travel to Los Angeles for the taping.

I do not remember many parts of the tape day, as my brain was addled by the stress and pressure of participating in the show. Still, I will never forget the first time I saw Trebek in person. I was sitting in the audience — as my name had not been chosen for the first taping of the day (five shows are taped consecutively in one day) — and he bounded onto the stage. From afar he appeared unshaken by the ravages of pancreatic cancer, his hair glistening white with nary a strand out of place, his suit perfectly tailored. He maneuvered through the game with ease.

My name was picked for the second taping of the day, and the pressure fazed me right away. By the first commercial break, I had amassed $0, on account of numerous wrong answers (or, to be precise, questions). Immediately after the first commercial break, Trebek always banters with each contestant about a factoid from his/her life. As Trebek and I chatted, I could see that cancer had in fact affected him physically.

His impeccable hair was actually not his own, and his face exuded a sense of fatigue. I realized how difficult it was for him even to be standing on the set talking to me, to say nothing of the game he managed so artfully. Seeing his strength gave me resolve, and I returned to the game reinvigorated, eventually managing to win.

Since then, I have thought often about Trebek and the grace with which he handled his duties. As a medical student, I followed news of Trebek’s stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis and prognosis closely, but after my taping, I realized that my focus had been misguided. I had spent months studying pancreatic cancer and treatment options with Trebek’s diagnosis in mind, but I had dedicated hardly any time to thinking about how the diagnosis and treatment would affect the man himself.

Given that medicine is a scientific field, healthcare providers are often driven by data in their decision-making. We know, for example, that stage 4 pancreatic cancer has a specific percentage of survival over the five years after diagnosis, and we know which treatments can prolong life to the greatest extent. Despite all that data, or perhaps because of it, we sometimes overlook how the disease itself can change everything about patients’ lives.

Trebek bravely chose to return to work after receiving his diagnosis, to quiz contestants even though he writhed on the floor in pain between tapings while mouth sores made it difficult for him to enunciate clues. Indeed, on my tape day he insisted on re-shooting his reading of certain clues when he felt his first reading was not up to his exacting standards.

Despite these difficulties, on the day that I was on the Jeopardy! set, Trebek chose to mingle with the studio audience during the commercial breaks, answering questions and reflecting on his life and career. When someone asked him about what he learned from his treatments, he responded that more than the specifics of chemotherapy or the mechanisms behind cancer, he was struck by how so many strangers had shown him uncommon decency, which steeled him for the months ahead.

Trebek’s courage is commendable and admirable, but it is not unique. Every day, people receive diagnoses that will upend their lives, and it is incumbent upon healthcare providers to remember that these people are more than just statistics.

To me, Alex Trebek’s legacy is not the nearly four decades for which he has hosted Jeopardy!, nor is it his dry, intellectual humor. It is not even the soothing effect that he had on me when I competed on the show, which propelled me to victory.

Instead, Alex Trebek’s legacy to me is the reminder that disease is a human process with human consequences, a legacy I will carry forward in my career.

Sathvik Namburar is a student at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. He appeared on Jeopardy! on Nov. 19-20. He can be reached at sathvik.r.namburar.med@dartmouth.edu.




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