Death Be Not Proud
by John Gunther
Johnny is a static person. Throughout his whole sickness he kept his optimism, his strength, his humor, his love for school, his good grades, his courtesy and much more. His personality did not change a bit nor his spirit. What did change in Johnny was the development of a brain tumor. Doctors were unsure at what caused the brain tumor at that time (1940s). Some believed it was a possibility Johnny was born with a dormant tumor and it "woke it up". Others thought it started later in his life.
Johnny had a stiff neck for three days, but nobody thought much of it. This meant the first major sign was ignored. A nurse came in for a metabolism tests and she noticed that Johnny's eyes were not aligned. It concerned her, but she just thought his eyes were strained. Then she noticed something, as he was walking out his left leg was weak and he brushed the side of the door with his left side. This was enough of a sign for her that something was wrong. She reported what she saw to Johnson, the school doctor, who then called a neurologist, Dr. Hahn. Dr. Hahn took a spinal tap that showed massive amounts of pressure in Johnny's brain as well as choked disks. It was then concluded that Johnny had a brain tumor and a new life began for Johnny.
Johnny was sent by ambulance to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. There he developed a terrible headache. This was not significant necessarily, however it was one of the only pains he felt during the duration of his tumor. This was because the brain is the creator of the feeling of pain itself, however it does not feel pain. John Gunther described it as, "The brain controls pain in other parts of the body, but there are no sensory nerves in brain tissue itself; you could cut a person's brain apart bit by bit, and there would be no pain"(34). What caused Jonny's headache was the swelling or inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain or pressure on the tissue from a foreign mass.
On April 29th 1946 Johnny had his first operation performed by Dr. Putnam. The doctors could not conclude if Johnny's tumor was cancer or not because under some definitions it was and others it was not. A brain tumor does not spread throughout the body, but destroys a brain by pressure. To relieve this pressure Putnam decided to open the skull. Johnny's tumor was located on the right occipital parietal lobe, a difficult spot for extraction. Because of this, Putnam was only able to remove half of the tumor, which was a size of an orange, during the operation. Johnny had a remarkable recovery from his serious operation and was walking within two weeks and exhibiting his normal curious intellect. This operation left Johnny with hope that the tumor was now dead. However, on May 28th, Johnny fainted and got worse. His tumor was undergoing glioblastomatous transformation, tumors with the prefix "glio" are always fatal. Before death it carries possibilities of blindness and paralysis, this was the part that shook Johnny a little bit.
On June 1st Johnny was allowed to go home, but had to return everyday for x-rays until June 20th. By that time Johnny had a very large bump on his head. Due to his skull being opened up, the tumor was growing out of the side of his head. Doctors were facing the reality that Johnny was not going to live and only had a couple of months left. The bump opened and started to leak pus and from that day on the bump had to be dressed and bandaged everyday.
With the mentality that they have nothing to loose, Johnny started new treatments. One was an injection of mustard gas, which if overused is fatal to the body. It helped Johnny at first and gave the family hope again, however on August 31st, another leak developed from his head, and his white blood cell count fell dangerously below 1000. Because of this they turned to another treatment. Max Gerson was the founder and believed Johnny could be cured by the changing of his diet, which consisted of only fruit and vegetable and nothing else. For a short period of time Johnny gets remarkably better. The bump opened and there was an emergency drainage preformed. The bump completely disappeared. Dr. Mount proclaimed the tumor "quiescent".
Johnny's body began to deteriorate again. By late February 1947, the bump grew back. This time it was rigid and could not be drained. He went into surgery on May 1st and Dr. Mount extracted "two handfuls" from the tumor, but the tumor remained massive. From there on his health declined fast and there were no more bursts of hope. Johnny now had difficulty feeding himself and was always fatigued. Johnny had another headache like the one in the beginning. Dr. Traeger concluded that Johnny was dying from a cerebral hemorrhage. They transported him to a hospital, but it was not enough. On June 30th, 1947 at 11:02 P.M. Johnny went to sleep and never woke up, after a long journey he had died.
A central idea in this book is courage with the presence of realism. These are two concepts that are hard to put together because it is easier to be courageous when one ignores the true depth of the situation. However, Johnny was very courageous while knowing how sick he was. This does not mean he lost hope, it simply means he was aware of the severity of his situation. Johnny's dad believed without his hope he would not had survived as long as he did. "I would say it was his spirit, and only his spirit, that kept him invincibly alive against such dreadful obstacles for so long..."(166). Johnny wrote in his diary, "Accept death with detachment. Take more pleasure in life for its own sake"(213). He understands that death is inevitable, he knows the reality of that, but he does not want to fear it. He has the courage to live his life and not fear the future. With this sickness death seems to be hanging over his head. Instead of letting it stop him, he saw it as an incentive to get things done. What he really wanted to do is excel in school and the first thing he said when he realized he had cancer was, "'I have so much to do! And there's so little time'"(56). His father described his test taking as him "...actually at work against time"(106), Johnny's response to the tests were "'My goodness, Father! How can anybody be expected to pass an exam under such circumstances!'"(106). This could be considered a metaphor to Johnny's life. How can Johnny be excepted to do everything he wants to with his life in so little time? Time is a motivator and that is exactly what it did to Johnny, it motivated him. Death is a factor for him, but he does not let it scare him. Before he was sick he realized this and wrote in his diary, "Life is short---so waste not a minute"(201). This represents his realization of death young. He wonders "... if the next world will be a pleasanter place than this"(130). Throughout the book Johnny is always realistic about death and his situation, is courageous by not letting that affect him, but motive him, and never looses hope. Such a combination is extraordinary and really gives the title a meaning because death should not be proud of taking such a boy.
This is a song version of the poem "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne. This poem relates to the book by saying death is not mighty, not something to fear, because it will never kill the person you were. Death is personified to think it's important, but it is not. Death is never proud, especially when taking the lives of boys like Johnny. Death itself dies when the soul reaches eternity.
This clip was from the movie "Wit" where a women spent her life contemplating religion and death and literary motifs. She then is able to connect with death on a personal level when she fights against cancer. This is similar to Johnny's fight against cancer and his strong will to live. In this video she is reciting "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne.