He’d hate me for writing this. This I know. I know, because in April of 2016, I was insistent to my friend Terhan Doner that I was coming to Austin to see him.
His body wrecked by the exact disease he cured for so many, my dear friend explained he was gaunt, his skin grayed, his eyes sunken. I wouldn’t be seeing the man with which I came of age. “Coming to see me would be for you. It wouldn’t make me feel any better”, he told me.
He was right. Of course he was. Just like on every question the SAT threw at him thirty years ago. All but one. In a life of little regret, he was always told me that was one. Not that he missed a perfect SAT score by a single answer. That he never pursued proof they were wrong.
The most genius person I’ve ever met.
Kevin Turhan Doner was born in Lexington, Kentucky on October 4, 1973, and by the time he was in elementary school his family moved to Carmel, Indiana.
Turhan was educated at the prestigious Orchard School, matriculating in a curriculum consistent with his age, despite educators’ opinions he was too intellectually advanced for lessons befitting his contemporaries. His parents refused, a decision that later enriched the lives of me and my gang, that all ran together, when Turhan joined us at North Central High School.
He was a quiet kid, one who reserved words for the most opportune time- always with a perfectly timed wit, an answer to expedite a long winded class seminar, or the right solution to bail us out of a jam.
We were well aware of his genius. Some intellect is so radiant it shines no matter how much its possessor prefers it staved. Turhan just wanted to be one of the guys. And, he was. That, and so much more.
He was with us for every step of our wonderful High School years. He tagged along when impromptu parties broke out at an unchaperoned home, he car pooled to football games, and dances, and countless fruitless trips to Burger King.
He was just one of the guys, and always our voice of reason. We were a pretty honest and clean cut group, but when someone’s ornery side arose, Turhan was a willing participant- who was then not afraid to speak his sense.
We were aware of his academic accolades- it was nearly impossible to not hear them on the morning announcements, or see them in the school newspaper. It was my way to keep tabs during school hours- after all, guys like me weren’t sitting in the same class rooms as Turhan. Yet, what he achieved before 3PM, we never heard him discuss after the final bell.
We all went our separate ways after high school- to schools like IU, Kansas, Alabama, Miami and Xavier. Turhan took his quadruple major to Vanderbilt on a full academic scholarship. It would have only made sense for the drive down I-65 to never circle him back to our group. Yet, it always did.
By our early 20s, guys merged onto the highway of adulthood in varying lanes. I, for example was making far too many stops in those years. I never lost sight of my destination, but was trying to navigate without a clear map.
Turhan was on the express lane, his brilliant mind cruising him at any pace he chose. He returned to Indianapolis when its finest Medical school enticed him with an all expense paid offer.
Most students apply to Medical school. Medical schools applied to Turhan Doner.
His classmates couldn’t help but love the guy they hated. His easy nature and coy grin drew you in like that. He didn’t say much in class. In typical Turhan fashion, he sat quietly, his eyes shielded by the shadows of the curved bill of his Yankees hat. He rarely spoke to give answers. Seldom raised his hand for inquiry. Never took notes.
Sat. Observed. Soaked it in. Then, when time to do so, said exactly what he was supposed to say. The kid whose eyes were shielded by his hat’s bill set the curve during exam week.
He’d always deflect the conversation. He never talked about work. I only knew it was oncology. I knew he was in Austin, knew he settled in the Texas highlands after time in Dallas. I never really knew his role in DFW, only that he did residency under an ER surgeon who declared JFK dead in November of 1963. I knew because Turhan knew I’d want to know, so he tipped his hand to me.
Fifty years to the day he’d done so, Parkland Hospital’s Dr. Robert McClelland did one interview about declaring the passing of a President . One.
Robert McClelland did it as a favor for a doctor 40 years his Junior. That was the magic of Turhan.
It was one of the few times Turhan’s professional life infiltrated into any of our lives. Unless it was a health question of concern about us guys or our families. The dude was then an open book.
I felt awkward walking in. I mean- does anyone feel at ease walking into an oncology office? It was in the lobby that the woman greeted me.
What do you say when you’re the only non-employee in the place not riddled with cancer? Did his staff even know about his friends? Was his private life as walled to his professional world as his professional life was to us?
“My name is Jake. I grew up with Kevin Doner. I came here today to see his Austin life.”
The receptionist’s eyes lit like those of his classmates when they finally solved a theorem my man knew instinctively.
She gave me a hug. She told me about the doctor she knew as Kevin. He changed his name when he became a doctor, but everything else was the same. The easy going nature. The smile. The privacy. He took it all to Austin.
She showed me his office. She told me of the halls where he’d light up when his niece would run them after hours. She knew about the Pacers. She knew about the Colts. She knew of his roots. “He loved Indianapolis,” she told me. “If a patient had any connection to Indiana, he took them in like family. He was so excited with everything about Indiana.”
I am part of that. I am part of the life of Turhan Doner, and, like the Pacers or Colts did for him, he gives me reason to be proud.
I’ve always been so damn proud.
The receptionist asked if I’d been to Austin before. Just once, I told her, to get Turhan’s car he bequeathed to his Father. “What did he drive?”, she asked. “I know it had to be nice.”
My man. Still private to the people who saw him most.
I drove up the hill from his office, thinking how he’d made this drive 1,000 times. How he’d done it after he’d seen people at their worst, helped them be their best or gave that compassion that made him the best god damn doctor in the biggest state in the lower 48.
I heard her voice in my head, replaying the words she’d told me an hour earlier.
“It’s so strange you came in today”, she’d told me. “The final patient Dr. Doner ever diagnosed was just in. Kevin had told him ‘If we get you to the 5 year mark of clean scans, it’s a major step. And, maybe, in 5 years we can enjoy a steak dinner to celebrate’.”
The day came. Of course, it did. Of the two of them, only one was being treated by the most brilliant oncologist medicine could offer.
Five year later, there was no steak dinner. Just one of his buddies back in his office to see his side never illuminated.
His own diagnosis came with more reality, less optimism. He’d told us that December. Before the weight had abandoned him and his skin had gone gray. That’s when Turhan let us know what he knew- that if his cancer returned in the next 90 days, he was not gonna be able to hold it off.
On July 24, 2016, Kevin Turhan Doner passed away. I think of him, talk to him today more so, even, than I did back then. I miss my friend, sure, but I more often mourn what the World has missed with his passing.
Some people were just destined to make things better in the world.
Most days, with each memory, he makes things better in mine.
He hated the thought of me visiting in the end, because he said it was more for me than him.
He was right.
He’d hate me for writing this. This, I know. But this time it’s not for me...
It’s for him.
1) Kevin Turhan Doner, 1973-2016
2) Our group of friends, with Turhan on the far left (black t-shirt)
3) Our gorup of friends, again, but thsi time in our early 20's
4) Annette Calo-Colon, Texas Oncology