Jai Pausch: Learning to live after the 'Last Lecture'

The first of two parts Tomorrow: Research advances in pancreatic cancer.


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Jai Pausch no longer wakes up every morning with a knot in her chest. She can now turn off the burglar alarm at night, no longer so afraid to be the only adult at home.

And her three young children have started to adjust to their father's absence, although they still grieve for him and miss him.

A year ago yesterday, her husband, Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who inspired millions with his last lecture, died from pancreatic cancer.

Now, his 43-year-old widow, who often stayed behind the scenes during his illness, has begun to step into the public spotlight.

She granted a brief interview and photo opportunity to People magazine in late May. She appeared the same month by computer connection on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," talking to Dr. Mehmet Oz.

On Aug. 22, she will serve as honorary chairwoman of the Ladies Hospital Aid Society gala in Pittsburgh, with proceeds going to benefit the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Digestive Disorders Center.

She accepted the role partly out of gratitude to Dr. Herbert Zeh, her husband's surgical oncologist at the Pitt cancer institute, she said in a telephone interview last week from her home in Chesapeake, Va., where she lives near her family.

"Dr. Zeh was such a stupendous person who gave his time to us even after Randy was no longer his patient and he did it free of charge, and was always happy to meet with us when we were in Pittsburgh and look over the lab results and try to point us in a direction that would be helpful," she said.

She is also doing it, of course, to promote awareness of pancreatic cancer, which remains the most lethal cancer in the nation, killing 95 percent of patients within five years of diagnosis.

Unlike lung cancer, she said, pancreatic cancer doesn't have the stigma associated with smoking or some other personal habit, but people don't know much about it.

"Most people don't know what the pancreas even does. I didn't myself until this came along," she said.

Dr. Pausch had already been through a year of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy by the time he delivered his "Last Lecture" at Carnegie Mellon in September 2007.

The lecture series was intended to let speakers from CMU pretend it was their final talk and discuss what lessons they had learned in life. In Dr. Pausch's case, the title became real.

In his talk, Dr. Pausch described his terminal cancer, but focused on how he had been able to fulfill all his childhood dreams, and the people and lessons that had sustained him along the way.

For those who were there, his diagnosis seemed almost surreal because he looked so vibrant.

"I am in phenomenally good health right now," he told the audience. "It's the greatest cognitive dissonance you will ever see -- the fact is, I'm in better shape than most of you," and then he dropped to the floor and did several pushups.

When the university posted the lecture on the Web, he became a worldwide sensation. More than 10 million people have viewed his talk, and thousands more have bought the book based on it: "The Last Lecture," co-authored with Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow. The book is still No. 2 on the New York Times' hardcover advice best-seller list.

Jai Pausch -- pronounced "Jay" -- had a prominent place in the book. Dr. Pausch described how he courted her, the nearly disastrous hot-air balloon ride they took after their wedding in May 2000, and the way they would talk in bed about the future together after he became ill.

But Ms. Pausch stayed out of the media glare during most of the months until her husband died. Even now, she is selective about interviews because of the demands of her children.

The oldest, Dylan, 7, is going into second grade in the fall and has the most memories of his father.

Some time after his dad died, Dylan told his mom, "Well, I'm the next to die in the family."

"It was interesting how he was trying to find a pattern," Ms. Pausch said. "You know, when lightning strikes, what's the rhyme or reason? I assured him he wasn't doomed to die and he wouldn't die as a young man."

Logan, 4, is in preschool.

"He's actually the most vocal about Randy," Ms. Pausch said. "He will talk about feeling sad and missing Daddy."

With Chloe, who just turned 3, it is hard to know what memories she will have of her father.

"I can remember what it felt like to hold his hand, for instance, but I don't know that she will have that kind of tactile memory," Ms. Pausch said.

But Chloe does remember her father at one particular time, her mother said with a laugh -- when she's being sent for a time-out.

"So I think she remembers that she had him wrapped around her little finger, because when she gets punished, she goes, 'I want Daddy.' "

Besides some personal appearances and interviews, Ms. Pausch has agreed to do public service announcements for two pancreatic cancer advocacy groups, the Lustgarten Foundation and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, whose board she joined last year.

She has made it through the past year with the help of her family, old Pittsburgh friends who have visited her in Virginia, and conference calls every couple of weeks with members of First Unitarian Church in Shadyside, who were in a covenant group with her and Dr. Pausch.

With their savings, proceeds from Dr. Pausch's life insurance and payments from the book, she is not forced to think about working, and doesn't want to until the children are older.

"I didn't make that much when I was working," as a university staff person, she said, "so trying to pay for child care alone on a small salary, the money would just go poof."

She said she hopes research will lead to better treatments than the debilitating ones that are available now. Finally, she hopes the cancer care community can focus more attention on the needs of caregivers, based on her own experiences.

One of the big problems now, she said, is that relatives are sent home with too little training on how to care for loved ones, which only adds to their stress. In her case, she got a brief instruction on a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff and then was told to call in daily with Dr. Pausch's readings.

"To expect me to get trained by a nurse in five minutes and go home and monitor that and expect me to do it well was incredibly scary to me," she said.

Of all the events in the past year, being able to switch off the burglar alarm at night is one of the most symbolic.

"Even when Randy was alive and sick as a dog, and could never have gotten up and fended off a burglar, he was still with me," she said.

"Then when he died, I thought 'I'm the only one who's here,' and especially at night it was particularly overwhelming. But I learned to get it under control and say, 'I'm going to be able to deal with this.' "


Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1130.


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