Editor’s note: This story first appeared Saturday morning, Feb. 22, in print editions of The Durango Herald. Dr. Joe Gambone died Friday night at Friendship Village Hospice of the Valley in Tempe, Arizona, with family by his side.
The man walking through the halls of Bank of Colorado on Jan. 18 was no ordinary man. Joseph Gambone, a Durango fertility doctor who helped bring life into the world, was facing his own death – bravely and with a celebration.
In November 2018, pancreatic cancer began to attack Gambone’s body. He fought it with traditional therapy for a year, then turned to other methods when the cancer spread. Gambone, 76, knew his condition was serious, so he decided to throw a celebration of life party.
“He said, ‘Typical memorial services are morbid. I want to do something that I can be a part of. I want to see patients, I want to see friends. Why do it after the fact?’” said Marge Gambone, Joe’s wife.
Months ago, more than 120 people gathered at Bank of Colorado in Durango to celebrate Gambone, a Navy veteran, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and former director of the UCLA fertility center. After about 50 years in the field, Gambone finally stopped teaching in June, then closed his practice, Durango Reproductive, in January.
That day, a 23-minute video of Gambone’s life played in the background. Bank of Colorado, which housed Durango Reproductive, paid for the entire celebration. Families, patients and friends, from babies to 80-year-olds, came to say hello, and goodbye.
“It was a lot of fun for all of us,” said Jim Irish, Gambone’s medical partner at Durango Reproductive. “It could have been a very sad setting.”
Gambone had a personal touch that made the fertility care less stressful, said Sandra Garcia, an on-and-off patient of three years. He gave out his cellphone number. He opened the practice whenever a patient was in need, even on a Saturday, Garcia said.
Garcia had four miscarriages before Gambone convinced her to try once more.
“I had been through so much, but his belief was that we can make the baby,” she said. She brought her 1-year-old daughter, Adelina, to the celebration of life event.
Gambone brought new infertility expertise to Durango and helped hundreds of patients grow their families, said Karen Zempel, practice manager and close friend.
“Durango is going to be left with a very large void,” Zempel said. “There’s no one left to fill that void right now, and our patients are scrambling.”
February in ArizonaOn Tuesday, Gambone entered inpatient hospice after weeks of trying an experimental treatment in Scottsdale, Arizona.
He had lost weight, and his face had thinned. Weak and in pain, Gambone could talk for only a few minutes at a time, Marge Gambone said. Marge, wanting his story to be shared, sat with him at home in Arizona reading questions from The Durango Herald, patiently transcribing the answers he could give.
“My cancer is the most difficult one to treat once it has spread away from the pancreas,” Joe said through Marge. “Although I have hope that a breakthrough will occur that I could take advantage of, I must be realistic also.”
Pancreatic cancer is considered largely incurable. For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20%, and the five-year rate is 7%, according to the American Cancer Society.
The couple are focused on spending quality time with friends and family. They do not plan on having a funeral.
“This has been the most difficult time in my life,” Marge said, her voice choked with emotion over the phone. “Until you’ve been through it, it’s hard to imagine.”
A lasting legacyJoe Gambone said, out of all of his professional experiences, the time spent practicing in Durango has been the most “meaningful and enjoyable.” That’s partly why he wanted to celebrate his life with the patients and friends he lived with for 12 years in Durango.
“I said to myself, if my practice and life are to be celebrated, why can’t it be done before my passing so that I can be there,” Gambone said. “I had not seen some of these folks for three to five years, and that was very uplifting and fulfilling for me to see their growing families.”
Gambone’s decision to celebrate life, before death, helped everyone break through the taboo subject of death that can come with a life-threatening diagnosis.
“I think our culture has it backwards,” Irish said. “People need to learn how to be able to express their sorrow.”
After 26 years of marriage, Marge still learned new things about her husband while watching him interact with his patients at the celebration.
Zempel saw Gambone laughing with his patients and their children during the celebration – the “highlight of a tragic event for him,” she said.
For Garcia, the event demonstrated how many lives Gambone changed.
“How many people get to grow so much life?” she said. “It gives you something to think about. What will your legacy be? His will keep going.”