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The French Place

I first met Bob Rand in the halls of the John Wayne Cancer Institute, where I was a temp, in my early twenties, earning an honest paycheck between cinematography “jobs.” I supported the melanoma research program there, under the direction of the late Donald L. Morton and it was at John Wayne where I got the opportunity to learn to build databases.

I had often seen Bob, this great tall man, slightly stooped, already in his early 70s, walking back to his office from the kitchen clutching a cup of coffee. Sometimes we would chat. In those early days he would call me “Mahrarajah” when we couldn’t remember my name. That always made us laugh, since “Maida” was much less exotic.

I started helping him with basic office tasks, like using the computer for correspondence, finding medical records and so on. He had just received some grant money from Michael Kadoorie, whom he had helped in some capacity, and asked if I could come work for him full time. He was embarking on a Phase I clinical trial, and he’d need help with the paperwork.

I learned as I went along. It took us the better part of a year to compile all the necessary documentation to get approval for the study; I can still remember being in the copy room with him on a Saturday, compiling all the final documents and Fed-Exing them off. Then came the series of reviews by the FDA. We would have these conference calls between all the parties, including the study’s co authors at the NIH, and I was quite shocked when questions would be directed to me, “Dr. Sussman.” Because I had gathered (and read/checked/researched) I often knew the answers. I was no molecular biologist, but I had somehow — by osmosis or folly — been become part of the team.

Bob believed that people worked “with” him, not “for” him and because he was open-minded in this way, I learned, saw, and did things I would never have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Like participate in brain biopsies — which I did! The advantage of being the helper of a senior surgeon is that no one asks too many questions. I scrubbed up and joined him the OR — that was just how it was.

I was always impressed with how openly Bob shared his knowledge. Sick people — often quite desperate, would seek him out for treatment and he would do his best to route them to a study or colleague, or enroll them in the trial if they were a fit. He spent quite a lot of time returning calls of people looking for help.

Another thing I always admired about Bob was that he never missed an opportunity to praise his wife, Helen Rand (an amazing woman — mother, painter, intellect — who deserves her own post). He loved to tell the story about how they met at the University of Michigan, where she was studying Russian. He never ceased being amazed by her. One day he brought in a painting. I asked what it was and he said, “Do you like it?” I said I did, in fact, that I thought it was brilliant. He said, “I fished it out the trash. Helen thought it was a disaster. Do you want it?” I took it and it has adorned my walls for almost 20 years. I eventually got to know Helen personally she has also become a role model to me.

There were lots of ups and downs while trying to get the trial off the ground. On good days, we’d go out to lunch to celebrate the small victories. Our favorite place was up the road in Santa Monica, a little French place. We could never remember the name of the place so the shorthand was “the French place.” The food was delicious and the space very quaint and somewhat undiscovered at that point. Bob would often get the bouillabaisse and tell stories of when he moved his family (with 2 small children) to France to study the surgical techniques of a colleague there.

One day Bob got an idea that he would like to do an experiment with the IL-4 toxin being used in the trial; this experiment would require an easily-acquired animal brain. He made arrangements to get a cow brain from a slaughterhouse in downtown LA. We drove his 1976 Jaguar XJ12 (12 cylinder) to that part of LA, which was quite industrial and felt slightly sinister. Bob waited in the car while I went in to pick it up. I was expecting to be entering an office of some kind, but basically the “office” was just a desk in front of the actual abattoir. In my memory there is blood everywhere and the loud sound of panicked cows. I must have turned white as cow’s milk. I remember sort of collapsing into a chair and making small talk with a guy in a blood-stained apron while I waited to get this heavy wet thing in a plastic bag. On the way back we stopped at a grocery store and bought a couple cheap carving knives, took them back to John Wayne, and Bob did his experiment over the next few days. We laughed about it all later.

Bob had become like a grandfather to me. Although we disagreed on many topics, we respected each other’s opinions and had more in common than not. I left Los Angeles and went back to Chicago for a couple years, then returned to LA.

The trial had been completed, and Bob, as always, was busy pursuing several projects. He was doing depositions for medical malpractice trials and trying to bring a new imaging tool to market. Bob had more energy at 77 than I had at 30. He had an incredible drive and was very convinced, quite rightly I think, that it was imperative to keep your mind engaged (use it or loose it).

It was around the year 2000 when we started to talk about writing a book. Or rather, Bob talked — a fictional book about stem cells was his idea (he had so many, and tried many things in his long career). I listened over lunches. He finally convinced me to start typing up some pages. It took several more years but we finally finished our book, and I wrote in the happy, tidy ending I knew he wanted. We talked about a second book — I even started the first few chapters, but life was different for me by this time, being fully immersed in my career at Los Alamos and married, approaching 40. When Dashiell came along writing seemed like something possible only in another universe. Although we weren’t working directly on a project, we spoke often, and he would tell me stories that I may or may not have heard before, and his friendship was a great source of strength to me. He was always rallying for me: to keep trying to have a baby, to make good career choices, and most of all to keep going, especially when people tell you ‘no’ or that you’re crazy.

On this Spring day, walking in the park with Dashiell and listening to and seeing life spring forth again, I was reminded of Bob’s tireless energy, interesting ideas, wisdom and laugh. And I hope that I can inspire in Dashiell the intellectual curiosity that was the cement of my friendship with Bob.

But mostly, I just miss him.

Goodbye for now, my old friend.

Bob and D

3 Comments

  1. What a moving tribute. Glad you included the part about the slaughterhouse.

  2. A beautiful tribute to a great friend.

  3. Grandma Beverly

    April 10, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    What an incredible man! Your love and respect for him is obvious. All you learned from him and your relationship with him will be passed down to Dash. He is 100% engaged in life and the love of learning!

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