With Moses Brown students having just returned from their annual March DR trip, we’d like to share a beautiful piece that young alumna Kayla Imperatore ’12 wrote about Jake Bliss ’93, who passed away in the fall of 2012. Jake worked with Kayla and other MB alumni leading trips to the Dominican Republic with his sister Molly ’86. After MB, Jake attended Yale, then went on to get his M.D. from Tulane and become an orthopedic surgeon. Jake was a lifelong Quaker who generously donated his time to helping the homeless of Santa Barbara, California and migrant Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. As we reflect on the work MB students did in the DR this year, we remember Jake’s work and impact, still felt. In fact, an award is now in place at MB, in Jake’s name. Two students will be selected each year in honor of Jake and his commitment to adventurous service. Here, Kayla shares with us what it was like to meet and know Jake:
“I met Jake the first morning of our medical service trip in the Dominican Republic. He was tall with red hair and a scruffy red beard. He was one of the doctors on the trip and was with his sister, Molly, another doctor, and his best friend, Jesse. Watching Jake walk to his seat on the bus, I noticed there was something off about him; his walk was normal but slow, almost robotic in a way. His voice, like his walk, was also noticeably slower than normal. I have to admit, his actions startled me but also intrigued me at the same time. I wanted to what caused him to speak this way, and I quickly found out the reason. As he sat down on the bus, he introduced himself. ‘Hello everybody, my name is Jake,’ he said in a slow but deep voice. ‘You may wonder why I talk funny,’ he joked. ‘I was diagnosed with ALS, also know as Lou Gehrig’s disease,’ he continued. The fact that he was so up-front about his disease and even joked about it, instantly comforted us. Jake explained that he used to work as an orthopedic surgeon, but could no longer operate because his hands were too weak. He was here on the service trip because it was something he had always wanted to do. Later, I found out that his friend Jesse had taken the year off from work to be with Jake, to travel and to accomplish tasks on his bucket list. They had already been on some crazy adventures like sky-diving, and now they were on to the next task on the list: joining a group of ten Moses Brown students, Dominican doctors, American doctors, and translators to set up medical clinics in the poor villages of La Romana.
“Being in the company of Jake became very special, as he made each person he talked to feel important. He always told stories about his days as a surgeon, usually in a gory, sarcastic way that made us cringe and laugh at the same time. Each morning it took about an hour on the bus to get to the poor villages where we set up the clinics, and each day he tried to sit next to someone different. Though the bus rides were long, they were always entertaining in the presence of Jake. It wasn’t until I worked with Jake though, that I truly understood him.
“My job was to be Jake’s scribe. He was the doctor, and I watched him and took notes as he observed the patient. I wrote down everything Jake told me; the symptoms, diagnosis, and suggested treatment for the patient. I also helped the translator, Juan Carlos, because his English was in its beginning stages and he often needed help understanding what Jake was saying. Juan Carlos then translated Jake’s questions into Spanish so that the patient could understand. After seeing a few patients, Jake began to ask me if I could come up with a diagnosis after seeing the symptoms, or what medications I would recommend. I wasn’t always right, but I felt so appreciative that he trusted me and wanted my opinion, even though he was the doctor. I remember for one patient, Jake was listening to a woman’s lungs through his stethoscope and he asked me to come listen. ‘Here,’ he said, handing me his stethoscope. The sound through the stethoscope was raspy and coarse. ‘Now listen to my lungs,’ he said, turning around so I could put the stethoscope on his back. ‘Do you hear how wheezy her lungs sound compared to my lungs?’ he asked. I was so excited and so grateful that he trusted me, and went out of his way to teach me as he tried to help his patients. Even though I was just a scribe, I felt so much more important in that moment.
“After each patient, I would grab my Purell bottle and put a small dollop in my hands and then hand the bottle over to Jake. As the bottle became almost empty, Jake struggled to squeeze the liquid out and joked at the condition of his disease, ‘You know it’s bad when I don’t even have the strength to squeeze a Purell bottle anymore.’ His sister Molly overheard him and gave him a disapproving look. ‘My sister doesn’t like when I say things like that,’ he explained jokingly. I laughed, but I couldn’t help but think about how Molly felt whenever her brother joked about his deteriorating condition.
“Later that day, Jake and I worked on the worst case of the week; an elderly man with a severe form of gangrene on his leg, which might have needed to be amputated. Since the case was so bad, the other doctors had to assist us. My job was to hold all of the materials and to write down the diagnosis and treatment of the patient. The smell was so bad that we had to rub minty Vaseline-like gel under our noses to resist the putrid smell. Since Jake could not perform the procedure on this patient, he calmly and confidently directed his sister Molly and his friend Jesse as they took over for him. Though the sight and the smell of the procedure was enough to make someone want to look away, I was mesmerized by Jake’s positive spirit. He was unable to do the procedure himself, but he told jokes and entertained us the whole time.
“I admired Jake’s ability to just enjoy the moment; to laugh, to take risks, and to make others smile. I am a person who overthinks everything, who worries constantly about things beyond her control, who often thinks about the negative things before the positive. Therefore, I appreciated Jake’s ability to let go of his worries; to know that he may not have much longer in the future, but at least he has now. I think back to that life-changing time spent in the Dominican Republic and even though I only knew Jake for a week, he came into my life for a reason. I needed someone to show me the importance of the present, of being happy, smiling, laughing, learning, helping others, taking risks, of feeling free of any stress or worry. To this day, living in the moment and not letting my worries dictate my happiness has been a struggle. In some ways, these worries help me to achieve success and to have a determined work ethic. However, I often struggle to enjoy my moments of success, and instead find myself thinking about what I must accomplish next.
“The combination of helping the Dominicans in need and being around Jake’s lively, positive spirit made me so incredibly happy. I don’t really know the words to explain the feeling that I had while I was in the Dominican Republic. All at once, I felt relaxed, pure, happy, and passionate for life – a feeling I had never really experienced before. Amazed by Jake’s ability to live in the moment instead of dwelling on how much more the future might hold for him, a part of me changed. I have always heard people say the clichéd expression ‘life is short,’ but being in Jake’s presence gave the expression a new meaning. Sure, life really is short, but it’s what you decide to do with it that matters most.”
Kayla Imperatore, MB Class of 2012, is now a student at Northeastern University. “My trip to the DR changed my life and so did my time with Jake and Molly,” Kayla says. She continues to return to the Dominican Republic every year and is even thinking about working there for her four-month Northeastern co-op. Kayla made her fourth trip to the DR in March.