You Matter

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I had one of those life experiences yesterday that is not pleasant but is not altogether unpleasant at the same time. I went back to my hometown and said goodbye to a woman who used to keep me in her home when I was just a little kid.

Ms. G. A. Hayes, otherwise known as Ethel, died on Monday at age 106. She would have been 107 if she had lived to see November. I learned one thing about Ms. Hayes yesterday that I don’t think I ever knew before. She had a twin who died at around one or two years of age all those years ago. Imagine that. One twin dying so very young in the very early twentieth century, and one living well into the next century.

We told stories yesterday, tales about Ms. Hayes as well as stories about ourselves and how she had fit into our lives. We all remembered the things that stood out with her. Her love of children, her rock solid faith and church life and her commitment to helping others. Oh, yes and that one defining characteristic that everyone was reminded of as soon as they set foot in her little mill village house on First Street in Shannon, Georgia. One glance to the right at the television told you that she was the biggest Atlanta Braves baseball fan who ever lived. Dale Murphy was her man. She also doted on Tom Glavine. She never cared much for Greg Maddux. If some of the baseball players had names she could not pronounce, she made up her own.

One minister, then another, then two young men whose family she had been intimately involved with for years all told of her courage, her resilience, and her compassion for others. They laughed about her stock phrases, remembered her proffered pieces of cake, recalled the radio sitting on her lap playing at full volume, and marveled at how she kept taking care of herself and living alone for many years after other mere mortals would have been packed off to the nursing home and called it a life.

It is not lost on me that Ms. Hayes started caring for me and had her first influence on my life when she was the age I am right now. She had already lived many decades, but she was constantly reinventing herself.

I often write about changes in mood, suicidal ideation and giving up, hopelessness, drug and alcohol use and misery in these blog posts. Just like other media and other writers, it is easy sometimes to write about the sensational, the awful, the shocking and the negative. It gets attention. It hits hard and shocks people, if for just a moment.

It is much harder to write about the quiet, day-to-day heroism and influence of someone like Ms. Ethel Hayes. Someone who taught generations of young girls in the GA program in the Baptist church. Someone who would sometimes have up to eight or nine kids at a time in her little house, paying attention to them, feeding them and loving them through their young lives, shaping them to be the adults of today. It is also easy to forget the influence these kinds of people have on each one of us as we grow and mature. We may not know, consciously, how much we glean from them, but it is a tremendous amount. It has staying power. It is woven into the fabric of our young lives, and it is the bedrock of who we are.

You may get up today and wonder how you’re going to impact the world. You may wonder if anyone will hear anything you say or think any of your opinions matter. You may sometimes wonder if you ever make an impression on anybody else at all.

You matter.

Just like my friend Ethel Hayes mattered to so many of us.

Don’t wait until one hundred and six years have gone by to find out whether or not you touched someone else’s life.

Go out every day and make sure that you do.

Do You Care?

Two of my blogging friends wrote excellent posts yesterday thay made me think. Of course, that’s what good writing does.

 The first post, from @jordangrumet was titled “Caring 2.0:#HCSM And The Rise Of The Empathic Physician”. Jordan makes several good points, including the fact that nowadays doctors, nurses, pharmacists, patients and advocates can reach not hundreds or thousands but even millions of people online, getting the word out about diseases and treatment and sharing knowledge. He says that knowledge is limited, but maybe caring is not. He says that it’s time to not only tell people what we know, but who were are. 

 He challenges us to move to a Caring 2.0 mindset, a process that involves us showing patients that we are human, that we suffer too, and that we have a lot to offer because of our own life experiences that we will share with them in the collaboration between the patient and the healer. 

 I am rethinking my own blog at gregsmithmd.com. I want to not only share my knowledge and  understanding of mental health, forged in the fires of twenty six years of clinical experience in the field, but to show that I live, love, and suffer too and that these life experiences make me better able to serve my patients. In doing this, I want to become “the doctor my patient really needs”, as Jordan so nicely sums it up.

 Another friend made these feelings manifest in words and pictures in a blog post titled “Let them eat…garbage?” that can be found here. @knotellin speaks of the Jewish tradition and custom of putting out leftover bread in public, sometimes tying it up in plastic bags on the metal outcroppings of rubbish bins so that it may easily be found and harvested by the poor who search for the leavings of those more fortunate than them for daily subsistence. In so doing, the writer goes on to say, “not only is the poor person who has to feed himself or his family debased, but so is the giver. There is no dignity in this transaction for anyone”. 

 My comment to @knotellin about this post was the following:

“I can’t “like” this post, but it certainly makes me think. I am struggling with the same issues in my own field of medicine, psychiatry, in that the medical care that is provided for these “throwaway patients” is often substandard, inferior, and “hung from the metal projections” of the medical hierarchy. What indeed does it say about us as humans that we often provide the neediest among us with the leavings of the richest of us, thinking that we have done out part and washing our hands of any more responsibility than that?”

Thank you, @jordangrumet and @knotellin, for really making me think yesterday. You showed me that we need to move forward to be more transparent in our dealing with our patients as people, and that judicious use of life experience shared makes the therapeutic process richer and the act of healing deeper.

 You also showed me that this sharing can and should occur in a way that is not demeaning to patient or exhalting to clinician, but in a way that lets mutual respect forge a strong partnership that is based on trust, not solely on paternalism and charity.

 Thank you for your writing, your teaching and for touching me in a profound way yesterday.