When the rich and famous get sick, all who are healthy pause and reflect

Posted on Thursday, January 27, 2011

By Doug Sweet

The first computer in our house was an Atari PC2, a now-obscure piece of slow-moving machinery – examples of which can be found on eBay and which are objects of derision and wonder on websites devoted to weird old computers.

But as soon as our eldest son became computer literate, he pushed us into Macs. And ever since the 1990s, we’ve been virtually exclusively a Mac house. We’ve had all manner of Apple computers – big fat ones, little skinny ones, tiny early ones (I still have an SE30 that I’m sure would attract attention on Antiques Roadshow) and today sleek laptops grace our cluttered desks.

Instead of the Hardy Boy books I devoured as a kid, my sons had flashlights under the covers so they could read the latest Mac Addict magazine.

All of which is to say that Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and iconic leader, has been a familiar figure in the life of our household, like a favourite hockey player or movie star, one of those strangers you will never meet but nonetheless care about far more deeply than you might think.

So the recent news that Jobs had taken yet another medical leave from Apple was perhaps more unsettling to us than to many others. The fact that he has faced and may again be facing life-threatening illness when he’s five months younger than me, just gives me an extra little jolt.

For those who don’t know the background, Jobs announced in 2004 that he was suffering from a type of pancreatic cancer, which in some of its forms is often fatal. Five years later, seemingly cured of the cancer, he underwent a liver transplant. In between there had been significant chatter about his skeletal appearance during an Apple event. Last week, the company announced that Jobs would be taking an indefinite leave to focus on his health.

Given his gaunt appearance, the recurrence of major health challenges over the years, and the somewhat wistful way Jobs concluded his brief statement last Monday (“I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy”), a number of observers have concluded the worst, that Steve Jobs has left Apple for good.

That the company and Jobs have chosen to keep any details about the CEO’s condition to themselves hasn’t done anything to curb speculation.

When a celebrity gets sick, it does make you stop and think about the old adages that money can’t buy happiness, that health is more important than wealth and so on. Because cancer doesn’t discriminate, illness doesn’t choose between the rich and powerful and the ordinary and meek. Steve Jobs may have more money than God (he’s been ranked 45th richest in the world, with around $5 billion) and he’s sure to be able to afford the absolutely best medical care it can buy in the private American health system, but not one dollar of it, nor all of his creative genius, nor his legendary forcefulness will mean anything if cancer has found a way to defy medical science and ravage his slim body once again.

That shouldn’t make those of us who are healthy (or at least think we are) smug. It should make us sad. Losing that creative genius, the brilliant mind that took a little computer company and made it into a global powerhouse would make the world a diminished place.

This is not meant as a presumptuous obituary, but a reflection on the fact that even though we may think we have everything we want or need (or that we want or need much more in a material sense) when illness strikes, all the material goods in the world don’t mean a damn.

Cancer strikes everywhere. And there’s no app for that.


Post script: Within an hour of writing the foregoing, I learned that Audrey Best, ex-wife of former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, mother of their two sons and a McGill grad, had died of breast cancer. She was 50.

Doug Sweet is the Director of the Media Relations Office.

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