Tacoma doctor, palliative care expert Stuart Farber remembered as physician who listened

It was a miracle, Stu Farber told his family, that he was able to die at home.

The palliative care expert spent much of his career helping patients and their families prepare for life’s end, with a focus on the wishes of those he cared for.

And when it was his time to receive such care, it was his cohort at the palliative care service he founded that helped him spend his remaining time the way he wanted.

Farber died Friday morning at age 67, following his battle with acute myelogenous leukemia.

He worked as a family doctor in Tacoma for 17 years, and for the past couple of decades was a professor at the University of Washington Medical School. That’s where he founded and directed the Palliative Care Service at the UW Medical Center.

“He single-handedly started the service back when that was not very common in U.S. hospitals,” said Randall Curtis, who knew Farber for about 20 years. Curtis now runs the UW Cambia Palliative Care Center of Excellence, a separate program from the one Farber started.

In the past year, he said, Farber also helped developed a palliative care training center at the UW. The first class of 24 physicians, nurses, and other clinicians is set to matriculate this month.

Curtis was once on the receiving end of Farber’s care, when his mother-in-law suffered a stroke and Farber helped as they were trying to figure out what to do for her.

“He really had a tremendous gift in terms of his ability to be present and to listen to people,” Curtis said.

Farber felt more training was needed in palliative care, and he once told Curtis during his cancer treatment that while he had great caregivers, he was disappointed how few of his doctors and nurses took time to get to know him and learn what his values were, Curtis remembered.

Farber’s cousin, Steph Farber, said he sometimes told a joke during his lectures, about why oncologists aren’t invited to open-casket funerals: “Because they’ll say: ‘Wait, let me try one last thing.’ ”

Farber called his brand of doctoring “narrative medicine,” which focused on learning what was important to a patient — to balance treatment with the wishes, values and spirituality of the people and their families, especially when it came to end-of-life care.

He glowed during his own treatment, his cousin said, when a nurse one day asked him: “What can I do that will make this day the best day you could possibly have?”

It was that sort of care, beyond just reading charts or writing prescriptions, that Farber trained his students to give.

After his diagnosis in November 2013, he focused on what mattered most to him.

That meant making himself and wife Lu lattes in the mornings. And spending hours each day playing with 3-year-old grandson Max.

“He knew that this was not the time to defer things that you wanted to do,” son Saul said.

The doctor masterfully balanced the demands of his career with being a single father, his son said.

He was home by 5:30 p.m. every day and coached soccer games, putting parenting before his job.

“He knew, I think, in a way that we all didn’t, how short time could be,” Saul Farber said.

Lu Farber, who married Stu Farber when Saul was 17, said she and her husband loved backpacking and poetry. He was an avid skier.

Several months after he learned he had leukemia, she got the same rare diagnosis.

The couple had many conversations about what would be important to them at the end of life, but knowing when to say enough was still difficult, she said.

They made that decision together a few weeks ago at the hospital.

“I sat with him at the bedside, and I said to him: ‘You know, if Stu Farber were sitting here right now with this family, he would tell us it was time to go home,’ ” Lu Farber remembered. “And he sat up and he looked at me, and he said: ‘Yes.’ ”

She turned to the people at the UW Palliative Care Service to help the program’s founder.

“All of his care team from the top to the bottom came together when it was time for him to come home,” Saul Farber said.

His father was shocked, and in the comfort of his North End Tacoma house said to his son before he died:

“I thought I was going to die in the hospital, and here I am, in my home, surrounded by my family, and I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. And that is a miracle.”