The lessons I'll take with me

I said my last goodbyes to Martha Eliot Health Center yesterday.

Today, I start my new job. I will be Children’s Hospital Boston’s first medical communications editor. I will be able to combine my two passions, writing and medicine; it is a dream come true. But to make this new job work, I am moving my pediatric practice from the health center to Children’s Hospital Primary Care Center.

This is a huge deal for me. I have been at Martha Eliot for 20 years. I decided I wanted to go there as an intern, fresh out of medical school. I was helping to care for a young girl who had just been diagnosed with diabetes. Dr. Cathy Samples, the girl’s doctor, came from Martha Eliot and sat with the girl and her family, explaining diabetes and what it would mean to them. I watched Dr. Samples be the in-between person, the one who translated what the specialists and other hospital people said, not just from English to Spanish, but from the technical to the understandable, from the medical to the real. She said to the family: I am here to help you. We are in this together. I watched her and I knew: this is what I want to do.

And it is what I did, from the moment I left residency. I went there a brand-new pediatrician, and the patients and staff at Martha Eliot raised me. Now, 20 years and so much life later, I am grown up; it is time for me to go.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the past 20 years and everything I’ve learned. There have been countless lessons, but there have been two lessons that have been most important.

I have had the incredible honor of being allowed in, of watching children grow up, of being part of the joys and tragedies and losses and triumphs of so many families.”

First, working at Martha Eliot has taught me that health exists within the bigger picture of a life. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how easy it is for doctors and other health professionals to forget. Working in community health, and in a place like Martha Eliot, you can never forget. Many of our patients have limited resources, or don’t speak English, or have limited supports. If I don’t remember this, my treatment plans may be useless. I can’t just tell a family that their children need more exercise when they can’t afford sports teams and they live in a place where it’s not safe to play outside. I can’t just hand someone a prescription if they can’t afford it or can’t read the directions. To be effective, I need to understand where and how a person lives; I need to know their realities, their ghosts, their obstacles and their possibilities.

This is true no matter what kind of medicine you do. But at MEHC it is so very clear. It’s clear not only because of the struggles our patients face, but because we care for families—for generations of families. I have what I call “grandpatients,” patients who are the children of my patients. I have had the incredible honor of being allowed in, of watching children grow up, of being part of the joys and tragedies and losses and triumphs of so many families. I have seen firsthand the richness of life—and am richer for it myself.

The second lesson that Martha Eliot has taught me is that nothing matters more than each other. At Martha Eliot, people come together in a heartbeat, whether it is to care for a sick baby, a pregnant mother, a suicidal teenager—or a grieving staff member. Everything is left behind to attend to the person in need; everyone gives of themselves completely to do the right thing. We go to the wakes and the funerals and the baptisms and the weddings; the fullness of life is recognized and celebrated every day.

Mother Theresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Thanks to everyone at Martha Eliot, I understand that belonging.

Goodbye, my friends at Martha Eliot. All of you, staff and patients, have been incredible teachers, and I will never forget what you have taught me. I am a better person because of you; I will always belong to you, and you to me.

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