On Labor Day, September 3, 2007 I received the very hard news from a
medical examiner that our son, Brian, just starting his fourth year of medical
school, had passed away. In just five days, we were planning to
celebrate the wedding of our youngest son, Eric, to his fiancée, Irene.
Many of you supported us, prayed for us and loved us as we journeyed through
the succeeding ten days. Some of you will be getting this information
for the first time. Here is the story of our family journey through
those ten days. It is detailed, so I apologize in advance for its
length, but hopefully it describes the process we went through, at least in
these first two weeks. Look at the pictures, and read what you
like. It was therapeutic to write it.
Brian graduated Valedictorian from Alhambra High School,
Martinez, CA in June, 2001.
A Wedding and a Funeral
It was 8:27 in the morning on Labor day when the phone rang and a man asked me
if I was the father of Brian Webster. I asked who he was and he said
that he was David, from the Medical Examiner's Office in San Francisco.
I was trying to understand who he really was, when he quietly said,
"Brian passed away last night." In a quiet voice that
surprised me I asked, "What were the circumstances?" He said
that Brian had been out with friends dancing in a club in San Francisco the
previous night, September 2, 2007. He had said that he was hot and went
outside the club. He was trying to get ahold of his sister, Carla, to
pick him up. His friend, Lee, wanted to stay longer. Lee went out
and checked on Brian several times, the last time around 11:00 PM. At
11:40 PM Brian left a concrete roof area on the 24th floor of the Hilton Hotel
and died instantly on the street below. A policeman and taxi driver were
standing nearby, the paramedics were on the scene in minutes, but nothing
could be done.
My wife, Pat, had heard the conversation developing and she came rushing into
my office. In a rising voice she cried out, "what happened?"
David could hear her through the phone and he said, "you'd better take
care of the misses." I said that I would call him back and took
down his number.
As Pat and I embraced, her emotions were instantly at the surface.
"This can't be happening, I can't do this, what about Eric," she
cried. Perhaps from my pilot training, I was in full emergency mode,
analyzing what had happened, trying to remember the events in Brian's life
leading up to this, quickly sorting through the ramifications that this would
have on our youngest son, Eric's, upcoming wedding to Irene scheduled just
five days away on Saturday.
For perhaps an hour we held one another and reflected on Brian and the events
leading to this day. Brian was in his last year of U.C. San Diego
Medical School. He had spent one year doing rotations of approximately
six weeks each in the various disciplines of medicine, and he had one more
year to go before starting his residency. He had just moved from San
Diego to San Francisco one week previously to do a one month rotation in
pathology at U.C. San Francisco Medical Center before returning to San Diego.
We knew that Brian was near the top of his class academically. Brian
loved neurological research and he had already published findings while at
Stanford, at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Institute in Monterey, CA, and while in
his first year of Medical School in San Diego. This lead to his being
awarded a Howard Hughes scholarship to spend a year researching at National
Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD, between his second and third years of
medical school. While at NIH he devised a methodology of evaluating
learning ability using Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This might have
application in evaluating onset of mental illness, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's
However, Pat and I were well aware that Brian had been suffering depression
since about his junior year at Stanford. He was under psychiatric care
and took medications to help what was a developing self esteem problem,
anxiety and occasional panic attacks. Towards the end of his term at
NIH, this seemed to get worse, and we frequently had to pump him up in phone
conversations. He knew that his work was good, but he felt that he could
not relate well to his peers and seniors. In May, 2006, this reached a
crisis, Brian was in extreme distress, and Pat directed Brian to get a
co-worker and ask her to take him across the street to the hospital.
Brian did this and he was hospitalized for over a week. Without getting
into the diagnosis, we knew then that Brian had mental illness. Brian did
too. He had pre-diagnosed himself prior to the break-down by running
experiments on his paranoia, and when the psychiatrist gave him his diagnosis
he said, "yes, I knew that."
Brian's psychiatrist gave him some medications which greatly helped to
stabilize him and told him that if he was faithful with his meds that there
was no reason that he could not finish medical school and have a successful
career. Brian only had one month left at NIH, which involved writing and
publishing the findings on his project and another project that he had finished
there. It was agreed that he could do this from our home in a less stressful
setting. Not only did he complete that work, but he later went to
Milan, Italy to present his work at a Neuro-Pathology conference.
In his first two years at UCSD Medical School, Brian completed the academic
phase of his medical training. In July, 2006, he returned to UCSD to
start the practical rotations in a hospital setting. By chance, he
received as his first rotation, surgery, which is difficult and most students
would much prefer to get that last. During his first week in the
hospital, Brian didn't know anything about how a hospital functions, how a
pager works, how to relate to nurses and he was so overwhelmed that he called
almost every day and thought that he probably needed to quit medical school.
I remember telling him that he was at a point where his learning curve
was probably the very highest it would ever be, and that things could only get
better. They did, and as he was able to worry less about administrative
details and focus more on his surgery experience he seemed to really like it.
Brian had no intention of going into surgery, but he received a very strong
evaluation for that phase.
He continued through various rotations, and his meds seemed to be working
well. There were periods of self doubt, but they were short lived.
However, in November we sensed that his anxiety was heightening and we found
that he had run out of his prescriptions. He felt that he had no time to get
them filled. Pat worked closely with him to get him to the doctor, and
by the time he had a new set of prescriptions he was not sounding good at all.
We soon got a call that Brian had become confused and disoriented while on
rounds and that he was in the hospital. It turned out that Brian had
taken a double dose of his medications, trying to get back on schedule.
He was hospitalized for about ten days, and he skipped his next rotation
to come home with us to Anacortes and recuperate.
Cortical brain scan of a Zebra fish at Stanford's Hopkins
Marine Institute in Monterey.
Brian returned to school after Christmas. He continued
to perform well, but his self esteem ebbed downward. He strongly guarded
his privacy about his mental illness, but having had an episode at work in
front of peers and faculty, he felt that the cat was out of the bag and that
the administration was going to find a way to flunk him out of school.
Pat and I were seeing strong summaries of his work and we were not convinced
that this was the case, but we also protected Brian's right to his privacy.
Brian did fail to pass a class in which he was video taped in his patient
interactions. Brian was so unaccustomed to failure in his life that he
was certain that this was the beginning of the end. The school gave him
remedial training in patient relations and scheduled a retake. In hind
sight, they were giving him critique that they felt he needed to make him a
better doctor, however, Brian viewed it in the most negative light possible.
Once again, in the summer of 2007, Brian was hospitalized, but only for one
night. Again, he had taken too much of his medication.
Brian had decided that his field of medicine would be neuro-pathology, a
research based field which deals with the chemical functioning of the brain
and diagnosis of related disease. In August, 2007, while home on
vacation, Brian wrote his Personal Statement which would accompany his
applications for Residency programs. He was also waiting for his letter
of reference which would be written by the Dean of UCSD Medical School.
Brian was in agony that this letter would be negative and would undermine his
future in medicine. A few weeks later, back at school, Brian sent us
that letter and it could not have been more positive, strongly presenting
Brian's formidable research accomplishments. At the same time, Brian was
told that he could do a pathology rotation at U.C. San Francisco Medical
Center, something he was very excited about. This would last a month and
he would return to San Diego to continue his final year in medical school.
The last week in August, Brian traveled to San Francisco and settled in a
temporary apartment just a couple of miles from his sister, Carla. He
and Carla are very close, and he spent every evening with her, often doing
things in the city. I talked to Brian on Saturday and he sounded good.
He had done a week of autopsies and he had been permitted to do a complete
write-up on one of them. The next week he was going to start diagnostic
pathology, which is the field that he was really interested in as a career.
Carla, remembers him as being a bit spacey that week, which was usually an
effect that the medications had on him.
On Sunday, Sept 2, Brian and a long term friend, Lee, took the ferry to
Sausalito to an art fair. When they found that the tickets were $20,
they opted out and caught a return ferry home. Lee took some pictures of
Brian on that trip, which show a heavy look which Brian sometimes had when he
was depressed. Lee too remembers that Brian was spacey that day.
After dinner at Jack In the Box, they went to a dance club. Brian loved
to dance, perhaps a carry over from his ice skating days. Brian did not
drink alcohol that night. He carried around a water bottle. He
knew from experience that alcohol and his meds did not mix well.
As mentioned before, Lee last saw Brian around 11:00 PM. Another witness
said that when Brian walked away he seemed agitated and he pushed several of
the people standing outside in his desire to get away. There were no
further witnesses. On the roof he had to climb a four foot rail.
There was only one set of footprints on the ledge which matched Brian's shoes.
There does not seem to have been foul play.
As Pat and I held one another, we reviewed these events together. Brian
had a very difficult summer with his depression and low self esteem. But
the events of recent weeks had been positive and we thought that he was
through the worst of it. He had said that his last year of medical
school would be the easiest because he would be focusing mostly on pathology
and fields in which he was really interested.
We called our son, Eric, who lives in Pasadena, and he was very broken up at
the news. Brian had been Eric's best friend growing up, as they were
only two years apart. Eric did not even mention his wedding, which was
only five days away, as he sought to grasp what had happened. We knew
that Eric had Irene to comfort him, and so we turned to the task on notifying
Carla, the oldest of our three children. Carla, too, was very close to
Brian, and she took the news with a great deal of sadness. We made sure
that she had friends that could come over to her house in San Francisco.
It was perhaps 10:00 AM when we called my brother Sam, who lives about five
blocks away. He and Debryn came over immediately, with their two small
children, and we grieved together for a time. We then called my parents
and Sam brought them over to be with us. I was alternating between
occasional crying and a surreal numbness. The mind cannot grasp such a
situation all at once.
We made no decisions that morning, nor really that afternoon. Late
afternoon, we called Eric and Irene and told them that the decision on the
wedding would be theirs. We said that we would support their decision
either way. Irene had spent the entire year planning their wedding,
which was to be held in a beautiful beach setting at the North Island Naval
Air Station Officer's Club in San Diego. On Monday evening, Eric called
to say that after consulting with Irene's family, they had decided to continue
with the wedding. Guests had made plans, the logistics were in place,
and from an emotional point of view, it was not clear that it would be any
easier in a few months. We agreed.
Tuesday was a frenzy of logistics. Fortunately, I had already had a
relationship with Joe at Evan's Funeral Chapel in Anacortes, as Mom and I had
carefully pre-planned their service and bought some attractive lots in a local
cemetery. Joe stepped in and relived most of the burden for planning a
burial in Anacortes, and Sam assumed the job of liaison. I then worked
with the hotel in San Diego, which is also a convention center, to find a
suitable room for a memorial there. Most of our family would be at the
wedding, so it made sense to have a memorial on Sunday morning before they
rushed off for airplanes. We also thought that Brian's schoolmates at
U.C. San Diego would be interested in a memorial service.
On Wednesday, we flew from Seattle to San Diego through San Francisco.
Carla joined us on the second leg to San Diego, and it was the first time that
she was able to hug us and share with us. Eric drove down from Pasadena
and we all stayed in a double room in San Diego. Night was the hardest.
One could not help but try to imagine what might have gone wrong in that last
hour. Did Brian have no meds in his system or too many? Was his
rational mind at play, or had he experienced another psychotic breakdown?
Thursday and Friday were also busy days logistically. I mostly focused
on details for the memorial service, while Pat and Carla turned their
attention to the details of the wedding. In her meticulous manner, Irene
had written out lists for each person of the wedding party to do on the days
and hours leading to the wedding. In our state of mind, those lists were
invaluable and we plodded through them mechanically.
Jerry Bryant was the minister who was to perform Eric and Irene's wedding.
He agreed to also perform the memorial service. He came to the hotel and
spent perhaps 1 1/2 hours with Pat, Carla, Eric and me, listening to our
stories of Brian's life and the things that had impacted us over the years.
He used many of those stories as he celebrated Brian's life later.
With her mother, Lucy.
On Friday afternoon we had wedding rehearsal. I think that we were all a
bit apprehensive as to how this would go. Pat and I had flown to Los
Angeles six weeks prior to meet Irene's parents. Her father, Sam, grew
up in the Red Guard era, in Guangzhou, China. Her mother grew up in
Taipei. Irene was raised in Monterey Park, a suburb of Los Angeles.
We loved them immediately. Sam is solid as a rock. He was
imprisoned three times in China for trying to escape. Days after his
third release, he escaped to Hong Kong under the most perilous of
circumstances. He swam at night through the waters near Hong Kong.
Eventually he arrived in the United States with no money, no English language,
and a sketchy primary education received under the Red Guards. Not that
many years later, Sam, as an electrical engineer, was in charge of a lab
at Hughes Aircraft, which designed the radar for the Space Shuttle. That
was just one of his many accomplishments. Lucy, a teacher in Taipei, was
introduced to Sam through a mutual friend.
Lucy is sheer brightness and joy. A Christian woman, she is active in
her church, in fact, active in everything. Irene is much like her
mother. As I said at the wedding, a room gets a bit brighter and the
conversation gets a little more animated when Irene comes in.
So, at the rehearsal, as the bridesmaids and groomsmen started arriving, and
the cousins and family came, there were the initial condolences, but the mood
was not somber for long. We had all decided before hand that we were
there to celebrate a wedding and the joy of the moment could not help but
percolate into the setting. Since there was no music to walk to, Irene's
cousins responded with an appropriately majestic, "Twinkle Twinkle Little
Star." I dusted off my bad Mandarin Chinese and talked
with Irene's grandmother, who is a Cantonese speaker. However, despite
the language barrier, we were able to appreciate some of our common roots.
Lucy, in her cheerful way added spirit to the occasion. Sam and I
watched and marveled together at the beautiful beach setting and the way that
everybody had captured the joy of the moment.
Sam and his mother, whom we call "Amah",
the respectful term for Grandmother.
We moved on to the Groom's dinner, a ten course Chinese feast at the
resplendent Jasmine Restaurant in San Diego. This was a time to get to
know the family and I was much impressed. Irene's cousins were
educated, bright, upbeat and interesting. Irene's brother, Jim, is
finishing his last year as a biology major at U.C. Riverside, and is
considering medical school. I thought it a suitable coincidence.
My sister-in-law, Kathy Gallagher, made the suggestion that the best way to keep
Saturday as Eric and Irene's day, was for our extended family to gather
Friday night and grieve Brian. We did. The Websters, Sorensens,
Gallaghers, and Moehls all met by the hotel pool and Pat, Carla, Eric and I
told Brian's story. Others told their memories and we wept and
remembered together. Sophia was Brian's pair partner during much of his
skating period, and she, with her parents, Ana and Hans, joined in. It
was a good session.
The morning of the wedding had its own agenda, and the women rushed to hair
dressers, the guys loaded cars with necessary accoutrements, and we fumbled
with the studs in our tuxedos. After pictures on the beach, the appointed time
arrived. I started the procession, leading Pat to the live music of a
three string concerto. Pat said that she teared up initially, but when
she saw Eric waiting at the end of the aisle, she found her strength, and
enjoyed a dry eyed wedding. It was a beautiful wedding in every way.
Minister Bryant had wonderful sensitivity. He told stories of the bride
and groom, and when he sensed any sobering, he poked fun at Eric or one of the
groomsmen. We did more laughing than anything.
The reception maintained the light joyous spirit. People mingled, the
food at the banquet was good, and finally the toasts began. Since Brian
was to be the best man, a seat was left for him at the head table. This
did not dampen the mood, and Eric's good friend from high school, Michael
Diaz, poked fun at his good friend Eric. The maid of honor ribbed Irene
a bit, but mostly praised her. It was time for my toast. First I
praised my new daughter, Irene, for the beautiful job she had done preparing
the wedding. But then I said that I wanted to talk about two families.
I said that my sister, Dorothy, had been born in Chendu, China in 1949.
On that day, the Communist Chinese army was shelling the city. I
described how we had spent a year and a half in western China under house
arrest. I recollected my boyhood memories of traveling down the Yangtze
River in a sampan and later a motorlaunch. I then told about Irene's
father Sam, and his difficult experiences growing up in China and escaping.
I told of his astounding accomplishments since then. I drew the parallel
that the family and Webster family had roots in China, roots in Taiwan,
and roots in the United States. I asked the room to join me in a toast
to two wonderful families.
After the toasts the dancing began. First, of course, Irene and her
father, Sam, danced, then Eric and Pat. Soon the young cousins were
moving out in small groups. After a time, I decided that a statement
needed to be made. I asked my sister-in-law, Kathy Gallagher, to join me
and I went out and did my best rendition of the twist. It worked, and
immediately the guests crowded the floor. We danced until it was time to
say goodbye to the bride and groom and close down the building. It was a
On Sunday morning I got up early to make sure that things were ready for the
memorial service. Everything was in order. Despite the early 8:00
AM hour, I was amazed by the number of medical students and faculty who
started arriving. Jerry Bryant opened with scripture and prayer, and
then my brother, Sam, gave a wonderful Eulogy, trying to view the memorial
as Brian would want it to be. He told some family stories and closed
with a beautiful letter from Pat to her son. Dr. Carolyn Kelly, the
Associate Dean of Student Affairs, UCSD School of Medicine spoke next.
She traced Brian's medical school career, starting with the eagerness with
which the school had accepted him and following his research and exemplary
academic performance. It became clear that the school viewed Brian as
the rising star in neuro-pathology. His class advisor had been working
with Harvard, U.C. San Francisco and numerous other prestigious medical
schools to place this unusual talent in a neuro-pathology residency.
Jerry Bryant told a warm summary of Brian's life, often using stories he had
heard two days before from us. The formal service closed with a photo
slide show of Brian, accompanied by music, which brought many to tears.
Brian and Abigail Alfajora, skating their short program at
the National Championships in Salt Lake City, 2001.
After a coffee break, we opened with a video of Brian and Abigail doing their
short and long skating programs at the U.S. National Championships in 2001.
We then invited guests to speak at an open microphone. Several of
Brian's mentors in research spoke of Brian's brilliance and his quiet,
determined approach in the lab. Many of his fellow students described
that Brian was brilliant but not arrogant. He had helped several pass
courses when they were having difficult periods in medical school, even going
to work on cadavers in the late hours to help them understand a difficult
point of physiology. They spoke often of his dry sense of humor.
It became very clear that Brian was a legend on the dance floor. Other
friends spoke of a Brian who was giving, generous and funny.
Sunday afternoon was difficult. We went to Brian's San Diego apartment
and began the arduous process of clearing it out. Immediately, Pat and I
had a fight. I went with the idea that we should only do this once; we
should throw or give most things away, keep a few mementos and be done.
Pat and Carla were emphatic that it was impossible to make those decisions
now, and only the obvious items should be given away. We cried in our
guilt as we realized the insensitivity of fighting, and yet our emotions were
completely raw. I declared that I would do laundry and run chores and
that Pat and Carla should sort in any way they wanted. I would not
interfere. Brian really had few possessions, only medical books and
clothes. He only had three pieces of furniture, not even a TV.
Since Carla's research in neuroscience closely parallels Brian's, it was
decided that she should get the medical books and some of the clothes.
Much of the rest would be shipped to our house.
The next day was easier, as we boxed up the sorted items and shipped them off.
We ate Mexican food with Eric and Irene, and bid them well as they headed off
on their honeymoon to Hong Kong and Bali. On Tuesday our plan was to
fly to Seattle, stopping for six hours in San Francisco to allow time to get
Brian's car out of police impound. Our flight was delayed to San
Francisco and Eric and Irene's connection to Hong Kong through San Francisco
was delayed even more. It turned out that we got to San Francisco just
ten minutes before Eric and Irene did, so we waited for them to arrive, gave
them big hugs, and pointed them to the International Terminal as they dashed
for their Boeing 747 soon to leave for Hong Kong. We heard later that
they made the flight by one minute. Carla dropped us off at the huge
city building housing the Medical Examiner's Office and we started what we
knew would be a long process for getting the car. We needed proof of
death, proof of next of kin, waiver from towing fees, only, we found this out
one piece of paper at a time, each step sending us backtracking to another
office close to the one we had left two steps before. We were finally
taken across the city to a seedy part of town near Navy Pier, and behind chain
link fences we found Brian's car with one flat tire. We were provided
air and drove back to Carla's house. The process for which I had allowed
six hours, took a mere 5 hours and 50 minutes, and we leaped into the taxi
with Carla for our flight to Seattle.
I barely remember Wednesday. We met with Joe at the Funeral Chapel
to finish details on the burial and graveside service. I sent emails to
people I had not had time to contact earlier. Otherwise, we were
surrounded by family.
Thursday morning was spent at the funeral home with Brian. Despite his
fall, he had landed on his back, and he was presentable and very much the
Brian we knew. The viewing of a body may seem like a strange custom, but
it has the effect of immediately bringing all emotions to the surface.
Such was the case with Brian. We talked to Brian, repeatedly pulled out
sheets of tissue, and we talked some more. We voiced our questions,
asked why, told him we loved him. Other family came and many took the
opportunity to say goodbye. Three hours simply flew by.
That afternoon, we had a graveside service with Father Vu from Pat's
church presiding. He is young and very warm and reached out to us.
Sam gave the Eulogy and Michael Gallagher read a free verse poem he had
written of his memories of his nephew, Brian. Soon we were placing
flowers on Brian's casket and he was lowered. We were warmed by the many
friends and relatives who came to be with us as we said our goodbye.
We moved on to Rosario Beach for a BBQ. It is a stunning, rocky coast of
pebbled beach and steep cliffs. Tall pine and cedar come down to the
water. Despite a chilling fog, we spent hours catching up with friends
and family. We met Lee who had spent the last hours with Brian and he
carefully spelled out the activities of that day. He thought that Brian
was in a distant frame of mind, perhaps depressed, but he had seen Brian that
way before, as had we, and had no indication that things would take a bad
It's quiet now. Family has returned home. My brother, Sam, Debryn
and the kids flew back to their home in Taichung, Taiwan last night. We
had a picnic today with Dad and Mom on a beach, but it seemed quiet after the
activity of the last ten days. Carla, Pat and I talk about Brian as
thoughts come to our mind. That is good. I don't want us to bottle
things up. We're tired. But commitments are light ahead.
Brian, Carla, Pat, Don and Eric
I cannot tell you the support we received from emails, phone calls and cards.
We have answered almost none of them yet, but people have been patient.
There just has not been the time.
We are also still Don, Pat, Carla and Eric, so don't worry about being
delicate or protective or careful. We watched the ridiculous video,
"A Mighty Wind," last night, and it felt really good to laugh.
Faith has been important to us through all of this. My mother died when
I was a boy, and before she went she told me, "the Lord does not waste
the suffering of His children." Pat and I believe in a God whose
ways are much higher than ours. We also believe in a God who loves us
more that we can imagine. We believe in a God who looks straight into
our hearts. Almost no one in the gospels came to Jesus in the classic
Catholic or Evangelical traditions. The woman at the well, Zachaeus in
the tree, and numerous others simply came with a desire to reach out to
God and he instantly accepted them. I have the certainty that God knew
Brian and Brian's heart better than Brian did himself.
Memories. Pat with her brother Mike Gallagher and
Sister-in-Law, Kathy, and Carla.