Obituary for Shelby Stern

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It’s easy to judge a man for standing in a stream waving a rod when clouds gather. But for the dull recalcitrance of a nurse, Shelby Stern wouldn’t have been anywhere near Holekem Creek when lightening struck. He would’ve been seeing to patients at Pisgah Medical, sans the need to escape to the cool waters of a trout stream.
    He grew up in these primordial mountains. His great grandfather arrived after the Civil War, lured by the promise of cheap labor and land. From that he built Stern Mills, which produced flour and, being the south, grits. It wasn’t strange that a northeastern Jewish family would make grits; they dined on swine, too. Less Stern, Shelby’s dad, took over the mill and married a local woman, Holly McCreedy, further diluting the family’s religious ties.
    Shelby was fascinated by the magic of the mountains and practically Baptized in its rivers and creeks, first as a paddler and then as a fly fisherman, a skill learned from his maternal grandfather, Issac McCreedy, a farmer whose family grabbed land after the Revolution. His great, great Grandfather was in the search party that scoured for Elisha Mitchell after he plummeted off what became known as the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. (Shelby would often tell this part of his family’s history to plump his penchant for do-gooding.)
    While in middle school, Shelby caught Salmonella and was hospitalized for weeks. That bug led to another: an interest in science. The doctor sensed Shelby’s curiosity and sated it with Walter B. Cannon’s The Wisdom of the Body. How marvelous was the erudite doctor, who labored in earnest and managed to make his awful stomach issues subside.
    Illuminated, Shelby went from Cannon to Jacques Monod’s work on bacteria and ecosystems. Attuned to the interconnectedness between the balance in the body with that of ecosystems, he noticed how the French Broad, once a pristine river, was now polluted. Friends would chide his angst-ridden lectures, until they caught e coli from tubing there. Businesses were to blame, dumping their waste. His father’s, too. Grandpa McCreedy, disliked it, but couldn’t abide those damn government interlopers intervening. Dinner conversations grew heated. Shelby, enraged by his family’s obduracy and apathy, retreated to the woods. Dad called him a Tom Sawyer who never lasted more than a day while Mom opined about his need to master his temper, but it was out there he decided to become a scientist; he’d fix this mess. He enrolled at the University of North Carolina to study biology.
    College was a breeze, and he switched to pre-med to defer the draft (bellbottoms and Vietnam didn’t mix). In addition to medicine, he studied literature and history and found a bedfellow in Alexis de Tocqueville, whose assessment of Southerns as being lazy and dim was firepower come family dinner.
    When he was accepted at Duke University Medical School, his mother’s side fulminated, sore at his defection down Tobacco Road toward them Blue Devils; everyone knew it was a Yankee school. He paid no mind to this. Duke conferred status. But the course load was hard to master. The fear of failure and the prospect of losing his draft deferment meant he had to buckle down. He lost sleep and gained weight and his temper worsened.
    He retreated into research, spending his internship focusing on infectious diseases brought on by bacteria. After his residency at the Cleveland Clinic, he moved to New York City, where his direct approach was well received in the hospitals. But a young boy caught e coli swimming in the Hudson and it sparked something in him. When the boy died, Shelby took it hard, deciding that it was easier to see patients as puzzles. Doing so solidified his grit and reputation as Dr. Stern, a “no bullshit” doctor.
    He worked constantly. So much so that his first wife cheated on him without his knowing; it never entered his dreams. When she left, taking their son, Zack, now 4, he felt it. Something had to change. A med-school friend who’d become a psychiatrist suggested he’d lost step with his humanity. He prescribed the theater. Shelby started with Mamet and moved into Sheppard; he was a self-proclaimed regular. He softened, started reading Watts and doing Vapassanas, where he met his second wife, Rebecca. They never had children, they travelled often. With her, he eased into life and, after a decade of effort, he became a real father to Zack.
    In 2004, with nothing left to prove to New York, they settled in Asheville. They took part in the community. Shelby was pleased the region was confronting its environmental transgressions. He worked at Pisgah Medical Center, but in 2018, it was sold to a corporate player out of Tennessee whose interest in improving medicine ended where the shareholder’s interest began. The staff, which were the envy of the state, became overworked. When Covid struck, the burnout became untenable and turnover was legion. New hires were less trained and prone to mistakes. He’d had enough. Time to retire, but he couldn’t leave citizens in the lurch.
    On the day he died, he had snapped at a nurse who’d consistently bungled his directives. How could she have a say in how medicine was practiced, this child with no experience? Her entitlement and lack of curiosity personified the waning intellect of the social-media generation, and reminded him of the willful ignorance that drove him from Appalachia originally. God, he needed to chill.
    So he went to commune with a remote tributary of the Big Toe, settling at a pool he knew held a brown trout. It was easy to ignore the clouds, as golden leaves floated in a breeze and fish jumped at the ants who fell with them. He rigged a nymph. Watching the current, his frustration dissolved as he witnessed the primeval wood and rock as the eyes of the world. He roll casted without causing a ripple and mended his line. The cascade muffled the thunder. Before lightening struck, he felt nature’s composure. Perhaps the nurse, like him, was both an element and a byproduct to a changing world. As he held her with compassion, another form of balance, 300 million volts fused his soul to this place.

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