The last time they met, Jim La Vallee sensed Craig Hildahl -- his doctor of more than 30 years and friend for even longer -- wasn't well.
"Don't go and die on me, my friend," Jim implored that day last year before they hugged goodbye. "I wouldn't know what to do without your advice and care."
Craig's response was typically reassuring, optimistic and all about his patient, as Jim recalled it.
"He said, 'Don't worry, you'll be OK.' "
Then late last week, while Jim was at his cardiologist, he learned Craig was in the palliative care ward at St. Boniface Hospital. By the time he reached the hospital, Craig was gone.
"He'd just passed that morning."
La Vallee was far from the only patient who cared almost as deeply about the 62-year-old family physician as he cared about them. Under his online obituary from last Saturday's Free Press, there is page after page of tributes to who Craig Hildahl was as a doctor and a person, which were one and the same. Among them is one from Angela Nikonchuk, who signed herself "Patient since birth."
"He had a kind and gentle soul," Angela wrote. "Made going to the doctor FUN! From delivering me until seeing me with my own lil ones, it was a rare treat to be able to share these times with the same doctor who always took the time for his patients... "
Or this one, addressed directly to him from Christy Martin.
"Dr. Hildahl, thank you for the past 25 years! You addressed my concerns, calmed my fears, shared stories and treated me with the utmost respect. One of my favourite memories is when I talked you into going on a diet with me. We lost a lot of weight and over time gained a bit back... I hope that you received my cards while you were in the hospital..."
But it's La Vallee's memories of Craig that struck me as even more telling of the man. The two of them initially met at the old Vaughn Street detention centre, which served as the youth centre of its time. Craig was an 18-year-old university student working there for the summer. Jim was a 17-year-old inmate.
Jim was a kid struggling with his First Nations identity. Craig was a kid from the suburbs and of Icelandic ancestry, whose father was a noted entomologist. What connected them was Craig's calm, older-brother presence, the way he would listen and empathize, and it made Jim feel safe. At the time, more than 40 years ago, Craig's older brother, Keith, was also working at the centre alongside future premier Gary Doer. As it turned out, Keith Hildahl would become a psychiatrist and head of adolescent psychiatry for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Wayne Hildahl would also graduate as a physician and later open the Pan Am Clinic.
Before he died in 2011 at age 61, Ken Hildahl, the fourth of the remarkably gifted Hildahl boys, would become president and CEO of the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission.
I have my own memories of them all over the years, most recently and vividly the last time I saw Craig. It was in June. He and his wife, Wendy, were at a wedding reception for their son, Stefan, and daughter-in-law, Aisling O'Brien. By then, Craig was in treatment for bladder cancer but still hoping to move into a new home he had designed for his and Wendy's golden years. One couldn't help but taste the bitter with the sweet during the toast to the newlyweds.
The Hildahls' younger son, Erik, the resident emergency physician, was also at the reception, as was the couple's daughter, Kristin, the dietitian and, of course, Stefan, who chose to become a chiropractor after watching the exhausting 15-hour days his dad put in.
My wife, Athina, went to see Stefan about her back. Being treated by Stefan was like being in the presence of his father's soul.
"He was sweet," Athina said. "Very thorough and patient. Understanding, supportive. Amazing."
His father's longtime patient and friend, Jim La Vallee, can only pray now he can find a physician with those qualities. At 61, Jim feels lost and alone in a province where general practitioners are in such demand.
"I, for one," said Jim, "wonder where I will find someone like him." The answer is he won't.
There are others, but no one quite like the irreplaceable Dr. Craig Hildahl.
Just ask his patients. And his family.
A service in his memory will be held today at 2 p.m. at Grant Memorial Church, 877 Wilkes Ave.