In October 2013, Bob Massie was a guest speaker at the Harvard Business School where I was participating in the Advanced Management Program (AMP). He opened his speech to a group of AMP participants eagerly waiting to hear his amazing story of overcoming great challenges in life by saying in a compassionate voice, “In 2011 the Chief of the Haematology Department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital asked me to give a speech to about 150 doctors and nurses. My original title was Surviving Haemophilia, HIV and Hepatitis. It was so boring. I decided to take a totally different approach and tell five stories instead.”
He went on to say that these five stories became the basis of his book, A Song in the Night and we would each receive a copy of his book after he had shared the five stories with us. The stories are: ‘the Superman story’—having haemophilia as a child and missing Halloween, fighting the U.S. Senate to take up the cause of monitoring blood products, being told about my HIV status, realizing he was much sicker than he thought and ‘the night before the life-saving liver transplant surgery story’.
Massie’s answers to these two questions at the end of the speech, gave me great insights into how he managed to overcome the challenges he has faced in life.
Q: How has your outlook changed now that you’ve survived three often-fatal illnesses?
A: I have an incredible amount to be grateful for. Haemophilia, HIV and hepatitis are all very, very serious. And now—new liver, no cirrhosis, hepatitis C is gone, the HIV under control and the haemophilia cured. Each day I think, ‘What do I have to worry about? I’m fine. I’m still here.’
Q: What role did the lack of cures for your ailments play in your life?
A: If I had been born earlier, I would not have survived. If I had been born later, I wouldn’t have the joint damage and wouldn’t have gotten HIV. It was a very particular moment in history: the medical care was good enough to keep me going and flawed enough to leave me to contract these viruses from blood.
With candour, Massie writes about his journey from sickly child to global leader passionate about social justice, public service and faith. In his memoir, he takes the reader through his journey; as a young boy he suffered from haemophilia and spent much of his childhood in braces, making walking difficult if not impossible. He then contracted hepatitis and HIV after blood transfusions, lost both knees to joint deterioration and because of the hepatitis ultimately needed a new liver to survive.
As I read about how Massie fought back, and eventually overcame these life threatening challenges and not only walked again but live a life of passion and commitment, I had a box of tissues by my side. I guess I was experiencing what Susan Cain was referring to in her book Quiet where she quotes Marcel Proust to describe the occasionally powerful “unity between writer and reader [as] ‘that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.’”
Massie’s lack of self-pity or anger at his situation is evident throughout the memoir. He writes, “As I observed others, I also inched away from my self-centered view. I realized that many, if not most, other people faced their own struggles. Passing in and out of hospitals, I saw children with far more serious physical problems than mine. Scanning the pages of the newspapers, I glimpsed the horror of war, poverty and disease.” (p. 29)
Both, after listening to his speech and reading his memoir, I wished Massie had said more about the role his second wife and his three children played in journey. Nevertheless, Massie’s inspiring journey and how he overcame great challenges is testament to the strength and goodness within the human spirit.