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One Minute Longer

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One of my favorite books as a child was called, if memory serves, Favorite Dog Stories. I rather doubt the collection had much genuine literary merit. But I was a kid and very much loved my dog then, as I love my dogs now -- and I loved the stories about other people loving their dogs, and the dogs' acts of love and loyalty.

I have long since forgotten most of the stories, but one left an indelible impression. I have perhaps altered it over the years, as it has tumbled through the visitations of memory like a stone in the surf. I believe, though, I correctly recall the gist.

A boy and his dog had an indelible bond. One day, for whatever reason, the boy went out on a frozen pond, and inevitably, broke through the ice. The loyal dog tried frantically to pull him out, but was only dragged into the frigid water himself. The dog was able to get himself out, but unable to rescue the boy he loved.

Don't despair -- the story doesn't end there; this was a children's book, after all, at a time when happy endings were perhaps more de rigueur than they seem to be these days.

The boy, some time before this misadventure, had himself been reading about one of his athletic heroes, who said: "the mark of a true champion is the capacity to hold on one minute longer." This line repeated itself inside the boy's head throughout the story.

Recognizing he couldn't pull the boy out by himself, the dog directs a knowing look into the eyes of the boy he loves as if to say: "Got it?" The boy, through the descending haze of hypothermia returns the look as if to say: "Yes, I understand." The dog runs off, and the boy begins his mantra: "The mark of a champion is the capacity to hold on one minute longer. The mark of a champion..."

The dog, of course, did not abandon his best friend. He ran the substantial distance back to the farmhouse, did whatever was necessary to rally the family, and returned with the requisite help. A human chain was formed, and the boy was pulled from the icy water, muttering in a barely audible whisper through lips of blue: "The mark of a champion..." He had hung on, and all ended well.

The beautiful, simple, unsullied love and loyalty that can characterize the bond between person and dog was poignant to me then, as it is now. But the boy's mantra lodged in my mind as well. Thank goodness he had hung on that one minute longer.

I never forgot. As my own life traversed the inevitable terrain of both triumph and disaster, or the impostors that pose as each, I found ever more cause to wonder: one minute longer than what?

I recall wondering exactly that some years ago, on a particular occasion when I was privileged to share a podium with my friend, and then Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Richard Carmona. Rich gave a moving, humble account of his own career. He noted, as many highly accomplished people seemingly do, that apparent "success" is not the result of never falling down; but rather about getting knocked down repeatedly, and inevitably, and always getting back up. He shared enough particulars about his own travails to make me wonder: would I have gotten back up that many times?

Getting up when knocked down, hanging on one minute longer, and forcing something past tolerance from heart, and nerve, and sinew -- are really all the same message. None of this is easy.

Before I die, I want to contribute something meaningful and measurable to advance the human condition. I want to add years to lives, and life to years. I am doing all I can to make it so, but I feel the icy waters of a relentless status quo wash over me. It's not going to be easy.

The idea of hanging on one minute longer inspires me, but it oppresses me a bit as well. The question lingers: one minute longer than what? The formula, it seems, is this: (success = x + 1), where 1 is a "minute" or some analogous measure of stamina, and "x" is the furthest reach of the endurance we think we have. The challenge is not hanging on one minute longer than now; it's one minute longer than always.

Maybe that's why true champions are rare. Or maybe it means we are champions one and all, since we all inevitably find ourselves at times hanging in there beyond the limits of known tolerance.

I know only a few things for sure. Success involves a great deal of failure. Some minutes are a lot longer than others. I am very glad the boy made it out of that pond. I will keep trying like hell, and hang on as best I can. I am really glad I have dogs.

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David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP loves, and trusts, Barli, Bramble, and Zouzou -- but will be very cautious about frozen ponds just the same.

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity