Robert Henigson was a Harvard-trained trial lawyer. Phyllis Henigson was a stewardess with United Airlines, a legal secretary and a court reporter. They met at his office in Los Angeles, married in 1966 and proceeded to spend the rest of their lives together: skiing and backpacking, raising their two children, Ted and Jeff, and, ultimately, retiring to Orcas Island.
Mr. Henigson acquired a slow-acting bone-marrow cancer called polycythemia vera around age 60. By the time he was in his early eighties, the disease had become unbearable. He was exhausted and frail and had grown weary of blood transfusions, a standard part of treatment. Then he met Michael Linenberger, M.D., Fel. ’89, now the holder of the Robert and Phyllis Henigson Endowed Chair in Hematology.
“Dr. Linenberger was very different from the doctors Dad had seen before,” says Jeff Henigson. “He has this totally holistic approach toward health care.” Phyllis Henigson, Jeff and Ted’s mother, remembers Linenberger’s patience. “There was never a feeling that you had just 10 or 15 minutes with him, and then you had to leave,” she says.
“I didn’t do anything magical,” says Linenberger. But he really listened. In addition to wanting to feel better, Mr. Henigson wanted fewer transfusions. So Linenberger tried a treatment regimen not often used: fewer transfusions and gentle doses of a medication that had a 50-50 chance of working. “Happily, Bob responded tremendously well,” says Linenberger.
In listening, Linenberger personifies a positive trend in medicine, one strongly emphasized in the practice of palliative care. “It formalizes what many of us have learned the hard way about becoming a good doctor and a good person,” says Linenberger. Listening. Spending time. The Henigsons noticed.
“When my father was nearing the end of his life,” says Ted Henigson, “I remember feeling very appreciative of Dr. Linenberger’s presence and care in laying out the road ahead.”
In 2011, Phyllis and Robert decided to create a professorship to recognize Dr. Linenbergers’s superb service and to support the Division of Hematology’s work in teaching and research. That’s exactly what the professorship, recently upgraded to a chair, is doing. With the professorship’s help, Linenberger, the program director for the hematology-oncology fellowship at UW Medicine, is creating a new curriculum for fellows, based partially on the values of palliative care. A recent training program he and his colleagues developed emphasizes the power of the patient story, communication skills, work-life balance for physicians, and focus on the patients’ and families’ spiritual practice. “Classic Michael,” says Jeff Henigson.
Robert Henigson died in 2014 of heart failure, but his legacy lives on — as does the family’s steady affection and regard for Michael Linenberger. “We saw a genuineness in Michael,” Phyllis says. “Our family feels that it was an honor and a real privilege to work with him.”