Obituary - Dr. Luis Vacaflor (1933 -2020)

Published: 28 September 2020

Sadly, the time has come to bid adieu to our dear friend Luis. And none too soon, he would have said, with typical irony; for the feeling of having reached the end of his tenure in this world had been with him for some time. He did not appear distressed about it; but one could sense his anguish at the futility of the empty, extremely limited existence he was enduring. “I have no health problems, other than this hell,” was his response when I asked him, how he was doing, was he undergoing any tests, was the doctor looking into any new issues? He said it in a thin voice, with much effort, as his general weakness had rendered him almost unable to articulate words. But with a bit of the old witty sarcasm, still left in his nearly depleted mind, he added: “Only that hell is probably better than this.” He was referring of course to the cognitive impoverishment he had been suffering progressively over the last few years. He was not unaware of his loss of mental acuity, nor was he oblivious to it. And he felt painfully embarrassed by the weakening of his physical strength, by his need to be assisted in every movement.

This is not the Luis we have in mind when we think of him; for we remember the sharpness of his mind; his accurate perception of people and situations, his ability to see and understand the reality of things, his wonderful capacity to witness the most bizarre, even shocking occurrences, without reacting with disbelief or disgust. Nothing in the human experience surprised him; he was the most tolerant person I have ever known.

Luis was also an attentive listener, a quality that served him well in his interpersonal relations and, especially, in his psychiatric work. Keenly interested in hearing the individual story of each patient, he was also wise enough to know that there is more than one side to every story, and always sought to gain collateral information in his clinical evaluations. The length and depth of his interviews were legendary; he would meet with patients and next of kin for as long or as many times as it was necessary to get the whole picture and figure out the most appropriate intervention; this often involved doing home visits. His psychiatric practice must have disconcerted the health insurance bureaucrats who tried to define or technically frame his medical acts.

Luis was a psychiatrist of the old school; he had benefitted from an eclectic education in the science of the mind and possessed an amazingly profound understanding of psychopathology. He studied psychiatry at a time when the reading of the classic authors was a must; and he knew them well. A proponent of Phenomenology, Karl Jaspers endeavoured to investigate the psychic phenomena as they are consciously experienced by the individual patient. And so did Luis; for he was not a checklist diagnostician; he was more interested in exploring the particular characteristics of his patients’ condition than in applying impersonal algorithms. He understood that, other than the psychotic disturbances, the patients possessed character features, ways of perceiving the world and behavioural habits that shaped the experience of the illness. And he recorded these pertinent findings succinctly and meaningfully, sometimes with lighthearted humour; as when he wrote that a patient, whose family name was Bonenfant, had been clearly misnamed.

Luis was indeed a gifted psychiatric clinician; many other colleagues looked up to him as a role model. Generations of young trainees and medical students have benefitted from the exemplary clinical teaching he imparted at McGill during more than fifty years. So did the nurses, social workers, psychologists and occupational therapists whose contribution he always valued and with whom he felt most gratified to form treatment teams. I believe the feelings of these colleagues towards him were reciprocal.

Our condolences to his family, friends, colleagues and all those whose lives he touched. He will be missed.

Messages for his family can be sent by clicking here.

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