Full Text Publications > Dr. Tom Dooley's Letter to Father Hesburgh
Dr. Tom Dooley was a Notre Dame student in the 1940s and honorary degree recipient in 1960. He became a Navy doctor in Vietnam, founded the Medical International Cooperation Organization, and spent much time providing medical care to people in Southeast Asia. He wrote this letter to then University President Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, in 1960 from Hong Kong, where Dooley was hospitalized for a recurrence of cancer that had attacked his spine.
Following Dooley’s death on January 18, 1961, his letter was distributed by The Associated Press and printed throughout the world. Shortly after Dooley's death, Hesburgh commissioned a copy of the letter, engraved on stainless steel and enclosed in a box, to be placed near the Grotto.
Hong Kong, December 2, 1960
Dear Father Hesburgh,
They've got me down. Flat on the Back . . . with plaster, sand bags and hot water bottles. It took the last three instruments to do it however. I've contrived a way of pumping the bed up a bit so that, with a long reach, I can get to my typewriter . . . my mind . . . my brain . . . my fingers.
Two things prompt this note to you, sir. The first is that whenever my cancer acts up . . . and it is certainly "acting up" now, I turn inward a bit. Less do I think of my hospitals around the world, or of 94 doctors, fund raising and the like. More do I think of one divine Doctor, and my own personal fund of grace. Is it enough?
It has become pretty definite that the cancer has spread to the lumbar vertebrae, accounting for all of the back problems over the last two months. I have monstrous phantoms . . . as all men do. But I try to exorcise them with all the fury of the middle ages. And inside and outside the wind blows.
But when the time comes, like now, then the storm around me does not matter. The winds within do not matter. Nothing human or earthly can touch me. A wilder storm of peace gathers in my heart. What seems unpossessable I can possess. What seems unfathomable, I fathom. What is unutterable, I utter. Because I can pray. I can communicate. How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?
I realize the external symbols that surround one when he prays are not important. The stark wooden cross on an altar of boxes in Haophong with a tortured priest . . . the magnificence of the Sacred Heart Bernini altar . . . they are essentially the same. Both are symbols. It is the Something else there that counts.
But just now . . . and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion. This is soggy sentimentalism I know. Cold prayers from a hospital bed are just as pleasing to God as more youthful prayers from a Grotto on the lid of night.
But like telling a mother in labor, "It's okay, millions have endured the labor pains and survived happy . . . you will too." It's consoling . . . but doesn't lessen the pain. Accordingly, knowing prayers from here are just as good as from the Grotto doesn't lessen my gnawing, yearning passion to be there.
I don't mean to ramble. Yes, I do.
The second reason I write to you just now is that I have in front of me Notre Dame Alumnus of September 1960. And herein is a story. This is a Chinese hospital run by a Chinese division of the Sisters of Charity. (I think) Though my doctors are British the hospital is as Chinese as Shark's Fin Soup. Every orderly, corpsman, nurse and nun know of my work in Asia, and each has taken it upon themselves to personally "give" to the man they feel has given to their Asia. As a consequence I'm a bit smothered in tender, loving care.
With a triumphant smile this morning one of the nuns brought me some American magazines (which are limp with age and which I must hold horizontal above my head to read . . . . .) An old National Geographic, two older Times, and that unfortunate edition Life . . . and with these, a copy of the Notre Dame Alumnus. How did it ever get here?
So Father Hesburgh, Notre Dame is twice on my mind . . . and always in my heart. That Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored. Do the students ever appreciate what they have, while they have it? I know I never did. Spent most of my time being angry at the clergy at school . . . . . 10 P.M. bed check, absurd for a 19 year old veteran, etc., etc., etc.
Won't take any more of your time, did just want to communicate for a moment, and again offer my thanks to my beloved Notre Dame. Though I lack a certain buoyancy in my bones just now, I lack none in my spirit. I must return to the states very soon, and I hope to sneak into that Grotto . . . . before the snow has melted.
My best wishes to the students, regards to the faculty, and respects to you.