It should have been a wonderful time for Dr. Dale Carrison, the 72-year-old chief of staff and head of emergency at University Medical Center.
The former sheriff's deputy and FBI agent who didn't become a doctor until the age of 53, a man who can be found training emergency workers before NASCAR races, imploring the Legislature for resources to treat the mentally ill, advising the governor on the state's homeland security needs, or simply calming a patient in the UMC emergency room was being honored by the American Asian Group of Las Vegas for his contributions to the community.
And yet as he sat there recently at the Gold Coast waiting to receive his award, he choked up. In his mind's eye, he saw a close friend from his time in law enforcement joking about a big bust. And he imagined his little sister laughing with him in the family car as he drove all alone with her from the Deep South to the Midwest at the age of 16.
In the 48 hours before the American Asian function earlier this month, his friend had died of heart trouble and his sister committed suicide at age 61 by jumping off a bridge.
"There I am - it felt like a sledgehammer inside me - and I'm realizing I've just lost two important people to me in California, and I'm wondering why I'm getting an award," said the physician, who stands 6-foot-4 and has a shock of thick gray hair. "I'm sitting there thinking of what else I could have said or done."
Too often, he knew, the business of medicine, of life, got in the way of keeping in close touch with friends and family.
"Everybody's got time to go to a four-hour funeral, but we find it hard to spend a half-hour while someone's alive telling them how much they mean to us," he said. "My sister was bipolar. When she took her meds, she was special. When she stopped and drank, she was very difficult. But I loved her so much. I never wanted my little sister to die before me."
It was clear to Carrison as he sat at the Gold Coast that he had to do more than thank those on hand for the award. He had a message to deliver. After giving his appreciation for the honor bestowed upon him, he talked from the heart:
"I didn't have a great week this week. On Monday one of my best friends of 40 years died and on Tuesday, my sister committed suicide. I always look at situations and things like this to try to make sense of them and try to learn from the experience. I had the following thoughts. What do we all have in common? We are all human beings. It doesn't matter what color we are, what our ethnic background is, what our religion is or what we believe in, we all share basic human desires.
"We are social beings. We want to be recognized for what we do, we want to think what we do is important, we want someone to tell us we are doing a good job, we want to be recognized for who we are, we want to be validated, to be relevant, to have friends and we want to be loved.
"I would like all of you to do something for me tonight. I want you to take this away with you. When you are home tomorrow, if you have a friend you haven't talked to in a while, pick up your phone and call them. If you have a loved one, then call them, see them, and tell them you love them. You may never have another chance."
Let's listen to the good doctor. It's time to give flowers to the living.
Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.