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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

From Passionate Living to Precision Medicine

Even if he hadn’t been cheating death for the past 29 years, it seems likely that Eric Dishman’s appetite for life would have been oversize.

The Charlotte, N.C., native began life with an advantage: a photographic memory. It was in third grade that he realized “my memory was really different.” 

“But 23 years of lotsa, lotsa chemo” have left him with “chemobrain. Not only do I not have a photographic memory any more, but I am horrible with names now,” he said. “My neurologist told me that the fact that my brain works at all is a miracle, in and of itself, and that I shouldn’t be worried about anything.”

But before that loss, Dishman’s acute memory was a boon to his creative life. While a UNC undergrad, he indulged passions for singing, acting and playing the piano in numerous bands. He played the Shakespearean roles one minute and the role of a British pop star in a TV soap opera send-up called General College the next. In such productions, he knew not only his own lines, but also those of the entire cast. 

When he sat for his Ph.D. orals at Utah, Dishman had nearly an unfair advantage—in composing his answers, he could literally see the reference pages in his mind and quote them verbatim.

At about the time he realized he had a different kind of memory, Dishman began the habit of daily journaling. It is a discipline he has maintained over the decades, through the cancer and transplant experiences, all the way to PMI.

“I’ve written many unpublished novels and short stories,” he said. “I go where the creative juices go.” He is currently writing two books on the topic of innovation in American health care, but insists, “There is some future in which artist Eric will be back and those novels will see the light of day.” 

Dishman’s other passions include snow sports and gardening. An avid snowboarder, back-country skier and sledder, he says he was born with a love of snow. “I want Francis [Collins, NIH director, who hired Dishman] to tell me if I have a gene for it,” he jokes.

He enjoys nothing more than hiking 3,000 or 4,000 feet up, then sledding back down. “It’s the most fun thing adults can possibly do.”

For the past 8 years, before Dishman and his wife Ashley, a communications scholar and social scientist, came east, they lived on a 5-acre farm outside Portland, Ore. “We grew apples, pears, grapes, cherries and plums,” he said. “We had a massive vegetable garden where we had recently reduced our inventory to 60 varieties of tomatoes and 35 varieties of peppers,” most of which was donated to a local food bank.

“Both of us are really focused on reducing hunger,” he said.

While waiting for Ashley to join him at their new home in Kensington, Dishman set out to learn guitar. “But I don’t think I’m going to be good enough to join Francis’s band,” he said.

Nonetheless, rock guitar plays a part in his biography: Paul Allen, for whom Dishman worked as an intern, is the patron of the Jimi Hendrix Experience Museum in Seattle. He had Dishman’s team consult on some aspects of the exhibit.

As Dishman brings his considerable energy to the burgeoning PMI cohort effort, there is only one topic that elicits a different sort of PMI—precision misery index. Do not mention the last-second Tar Heel national championship basketball loss last April. Some memories resist even chemobrain. 

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