Weak from cancer, John Young Song still had one last bit of business to tend to: seeing through a research project on end-of-life care for people in prison or jail.
Then, last year he received the news that his study would be funded. He never got to finish.
“He was deeply, deeply troubled by what he was learning about lack of care or lack of access to compassionate care in that population,” said Debra DeBruin, a longtime friend and interim director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, where Song had worked since 2000. “If he thought that injustices had been done or people were being harmed, that’s not something John would tolerate.”
Song, an internist and bioethics professor at the U who for years ran a free medical clinic for the uninsured and underinsured, died Feb. 27 of pancreatic cancer. He was 55.
After a brief flirtation with teaching English, Song chose medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After a childhood of relative privilege growing up outside Philadelphia, he was driven to work with disadvantaged populations — people with HIV, injection drug users and most recently prisoners — and led weekly writing therapy sessions for homeless families, according to his wife of 19 years, Jennifer.
“I remember going to the group and just being in awe, he had such an easy way with the clients,” she said, recalling how the two of them collaborated to host art therapy and poetry readings “to try to educate the public on people’s experiences in being homeless.”
One moment always stuck with her: “Oh, I remember one fella saying, ‘I’m alive because of God and Doctor Song!’ ”
After moving back to Minneapolis, where he did his residency, Song founded the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic, which he ran out of the basement of a South Side church, recruiting area medical, nursing and physical therapy students to staff it. In an interview with the Star Tribune, he said he saw the clinic as mutually beneficial: a lifesaver for those who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere that also gave student volunteers a greater appreciation for the challenges and attitudes facing the poor.
Teaching and nurturing were in his blood, friends and colleagues say.
“I would say he is a very special person. He lights up everything that he touches,” said Joan Liaschenko, a longtime colleague and friend. “He is passionately committed to social justice and work with disenfranchised populations.”
A devout cinephile, he would screen movies for fellow professors that explored bioethics themes, she said. Recent selections included “Still Alice” and “Wit.”
“He was a piece of magic,” Liaschenko said.
A post on the Bioethics Center’s website credited Song’s research on end-of-life care and homelessness with producing “several publications that were among the first defining end of life care concerns among homeless persons as well as the first randomized controlled trial of an advanced care planning intervention in homeless populations.”
Later in life, he sought to shed light on medical care, or lack thereof, for what he saw as another misunderstood and overlooked population: prisoners. Song held out hope that he could complete the project, even as he wrestled with his own mortality.
“It’s sad, you think of people who don’t want to give back to the community and they’re the ones who don’t get sick,” said Jennifer Song. “And he used to say, ‘I don’t understand, I’m finally good at what I do, there’s so much more I could.’ ”
Song is survived by his wife; two teenage daughters, Lily and Ruby; his father, Dr. Sang Won Song; and his sister, Kat. Funeral services will be held at St. Joan of Arc Church, 4537 3rd Av. S. in Minneapolis at 11 a.m. on March 16, with visitation at 10 and luncheon to follow.