For years, Dr. Ed Furber worked in addiction medicine, a subspecialty that focuses on the prevention and treatment of substance-use disorders. He had known denial in many forms.
Still, the psychiatrist didn’t recognize it in himself when his wife of more than 40 years was dying of ovarian cancer. Furber, 94, admitted the oversight to a class of medical students in December 2021.
That day, he sported his quintessential Christmas attire: candy red blazer, cotton white beard, hair he’d grown unchecked during the pandemic (the long locks made him look younger, he told a neighbor). He mused, for the students’ benefit, about the difficulty of grappling with an experience he’d long understood only in a clinical setting.
“I know now what denial is,” Furber, 94, told the third-years, who were studying end-of-life care. “It’s not just a river in Egypt” — they chuckled — “It’s a block to prevent something you cannot abide. And I really could not abide the death of my wife.”
Furber’s wife, Genie, died Oct. 30, 2017. But rather than withering in the shadow of loss, Furber engaged, as he always did, in life. “Ed’s world never got smaller,” his friend and colleague Dr. Stuart Pickell said. “He just kept participating.”
The classroom conversation exemplified that commitment. He was endlessly curious, endlessly interested in medicine and people and in sharing that knowledge with others. His wife often asked where her husband was “holding court,” his stepson, Gene Lewis, said.
Furber himself died Aug. 9 at his home in Fort Worth. He was 94. He’d returned, days before, from a trip to Oregon. He’d traveled through Friendship Force, a cultural exchange organization that promotes friendship across borders.
He was especially proud, Lewis said, that he booked all the travel arrangements himself. When the pandemic made life beyond digital walls feel small, Furber made sure he learned Zoom so he could still engage.
Furber was born Oct. 1, 1927, in Muskingum County, Ohio. He studied medicine at Heidelberg University in Germany before pursuing multiple residencies — first in pathology, then psychiatry — in Florida and Texas.
He met Eugenia, Genie, in the late ’60s. They both worked at Spring Branch Memorial Hospital in Houston, he as a physician, she as an assistant. The Furbers married in 1975 and moved to Fort Worth in 1979.
Dr. John Jackson, a retired physician in Fort Worth, moved to the city the same year. He remembers seeing Furber at an early-morning book club for internists. “What the hell is a psychiatrist doing at an internist book club?” he said, with a laugh. “(Furber) was interested in all aspects of medicine, in the whole patient. He did not confine himself to psychiatric book clubs or meetings.”
Throughout his decades in Fort Worth, Furber joined groups that spanned disciplines: the Tarrant County Ethics Consortium, the Physician Health and Wellness Committee, and a cohort of physicians studying the ethics of physician-assisted suicide. In this latter group, he and a fellow nonagenarian began a side discussion to process the recent deaths of their wives.
Pickell overheard their conversation. Later, he would ask the two men to recreate it for a group of medical students studying end-of-life care.
Furber retired, at his wife’s insistence, just before his 82nd birthday. He became a valuable member of another book club, this time for retired physicians. His pursuit of knowledge remained perennially unquenched.
“Ed was extremely intelligent,” Lewis, his stepson, said. “His knowledge of politics, history, science, geography, pretty much any other topic you want to bring up, is amazing.”
Dr. Ken Hopper, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU, describes Furber as a “mental giant.” Hopper met Furber in 1989, when the former was a young doctor practicing psychiatry for the first time. Furber was “kindness personified,” he said, a scholar and a mentor. He melded empathy and intellect in his practice.
“He had an uncanny way of understanding drives and motives, not framed in a sinister way but a humanizing way,” Hopper said. “His demeanor was calm and very judicious with words, insightful, so as to get to a place of ‘yes.’”
Furber revealed his commitment to justice, one of the four pillars of medical ethics, by caring for the whole person, not just the disease. He often spoke at ethics meetings about access and equity, his friend and ethics consortium colleague Sue Lurie said.
Once, Jackson set up an appointment with Furber for a relative who struggled with anxiety. As the session drew to a close, Jackson heard bursts of laughter from within the meeting room. “Not what I expected to hear in a psychiatric office,” he remembers. When his relative came out, he asked her what was funny.
“(Furber) would be looking at some of the questions … on the intake form, and he would put his pencil to his mouth and say, ‘Hmmmmm. I’ve never seen that answer before,’” she told Jackson. “He had a way of connecting with patients. I suspect that was not an isolated incident with him.”
Furber’s playfulness matched his intellect.
“Talk about somebody who was multifaceted,” Hopper said. “He was able to mix personality elements that don’t often go together — a great mind, a wonderful spirit and an ability to relax and poke fun at himself.”
The Furbers lived in Ryan Place, a neighborhood south of Fort Worth’s medical district. In his retirement, Furber volunteered during the neighborhood’s annual candlelight Christmas tours, where people open their historic homes to the public the first weekend of December. He served as a docent, telling stories about his neighbor Diane Zemkoski’s house.
She remembers overhearing a particularly farfetched tale from her living room. Furber caught her eye and winked.
“As he admitted, if the stories weren’t interesting enough, he might embellish them somewhat,” she said.
Furber was a regular at the Magnolia at the Modern, Lurie said. He religiously attended the Sunday noon showing, where tickets are half-price.
He was also a good neighbor. He never missed a party or picnic. Last Fourth of July, he rode in Zemkoski’s convertible for the neighborhood parade, and met often with her for “coffee and conversation,” his phrasing.
“I miss him every day. I really do,” she said. “It seems kind of funny that one of my absolutely closest friends was, you know, my 94-year-old neighbor, but it’s true.”
Each Christmas for the past few years, Furber came to her house for dinner. That night or the night after, the Zemkoskis and Furber drove to see Christmas lights.
Furber donned his red blazer, his red shirt and a red hat. His white beard reached his chest. People who saw him waved and honked their horns.
Riding shotgun inside Zemkoski’s red 1955 Chevy Bel Air, he looked, to all the world, ready to bring magic to the night.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.