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Through Service, Gratitude, & Taking Care of One Another, We Will Survive

Thank you wordcloud heart for coronavirus covid-19 nurses and healthcareClementina was a 70-year-old lady who lived alone in a lean-to made of cardboard, wood, and metal sheets on a steep hill on the outskirts of Montemorelos—a town in northern Mexico. To make matters worse, she had diabetes with multiple complications.
Noel was a medical student who befriended her after seeing her as a patient and learning about her desperate circumstances. He started visiting her every Saturday afternoon to bring her medications and food. Her little hut was very difficult to get to, so Noel had to park at the bottom of the hill and then hike uphill for about 20 minutes to deliver supplies and visit with her.
Noel personally looked after Clementina from 2008 to 2013 throughout medical school and during his first two years of training as an intern/training physician in Mexico. In one instance, Noel had to carry Clementina on his back down the hillside to bring her to the hospital to get needed medical attention.
On one of his weekly visits during the rainy season, he found that she had narrowly survived a mudslide that caved in the back wall of her lean-to and deposited mud 5 feet deep on her floor.
That same afternoon he enlisted 20 of his med school classmates to help to dig out the hut, but he realized that this was a very unsafe place for her to live. He and his classmates sent a letter to the mayor of the town asking for help to relocate her. Within a year, she was moved to a small house with running water and electricity in a much safer area.
Noel was born and raised in Cuba and dreamed of coming to America, but the only foreign language his school offered was Russian. When he was 17, he fled Cuba and came to Kansas City to live with his uncle.
Noel studied for 2 years at Penn Valley Community College where he learned English and took pre-med classes. Then, Noel went to medical school in Mexico. When he arrived back in Kansas City in 2015, we hired him to work as a medical assistant in our Cardio Health and Wellness (CWC) Center.
Since being here in Kansas City, nearly every weekend Noel helps out with his 90-year-old grandmother. She has dementia and lives with his uncle, who is not physically capable of caring for her. During the week, she has a homecare aid helping her, but on the weekend, Noel takes over.
Last summer Noel completed his three-year internal medicine residency at the University of Missouri — Kansas City School of Medicine, Kansas City, Missouri.  In July 2019, I accepted him as my preventive cardiology fellow. As in his other roles, Noel has quietly excelled in this position and has been accepted to the three-year cardiology training program at University of Kansas starting July 1, 2020.
Noel is a brilliant young man who has a modest and humble demeanor. Our patients almost uniformly tell me how much they are impressed with him—his listening skills, his soothing and gracious nature, and his genuine compassion.
As his mentor, I am grateful that I have been able to work closely with him for the past five years. Noel has taught me as much as I have taught him. I will be enthusiastically recommending that he be hired here at Saint Luke’s in 2024, when he will be a full-fledged cardiologist.
What Does Life Want from You?
David Brooks, in his enlightened book The Road to Character writes, “You don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask: What does life want from me? Start your work from where you live, with the small concrete needs right around you.
Help ease tension in your workplace. Help feed the person right in front of you. We each have a deep personal obligation to live simply, to look after the needs of our brothers and sisters, and to share in the happiness and misery they are suffering.”
Brooks goes on to write, “Joy emanates unbidden and unforced. Joy comes as a gift when you least expect it. At those fleeting moments you know why you were put here and what truth you serve.
You may not feel giddy at those moments, you may not hear the orchestra’s delirious swell or see flashes of crimson and gold, but you will feel a satisfaction, a silence, a peace—a hush. Those moments are the blessings and the signs of a beautiful life.”
Brooks states, “Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative.
It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones.”
The Power of Gratitude
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”                                                      Marcus Aurelius
In these frightening times, I have found that thinking grateful thoughts automatically chases negative emotions like worry and fear from my mind. A growing consensus from scientific studies shows that being thankful and expressing gratitude will predictably increase one’s sense of well-being. Try it for yourself. The next time you’re feeling some unpleasant emotion like fear, gloom, anxiety, inadequacy, resentment (these days, you probably won’t have to wait long for one of these emotions to pop up), call to mind a few of your countless blessings, from the ones that are most dear to you, to the day-to-day joys we usually take for granted. It is virtually impossible to feel toxic emotions while you are actively thinking grateful thoughts.
By human nature, we tend to take all of the things that are going well in our life for granted, and then ruminate on a few of the negatives. I’m not suggesting you ignore your problems or minimize the gravity of the Coronavirus crisis. Yet, taking time to remind yourself of what you are most thankful for can change your perspective, and make our challenges seem more manageable.
Expressions of gratitude are great for everybody involved. So, when you catch someone providing needed help, complement them on it and tell them how much you appreciate their service. As you turn out the lights and snuggle into your bed, recall three good things that happened during the day. Or, keep a gratitude journal to help focus on all the things that are right in your life, rather than the few that are wrong.
By Helping Others, You Help Yourself
“It is one of the most beautiful compensations in life, that no person can sincerely try to help another without helping himself or herself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I lived with my grandmother Dorothy O’Keefe when she was 74 to 78 years old, while I was going to college and medical school. I found it almost comical how much time and energy she put into community service work.
She regularly volunteered to serve food and clean up at a local church, helped out at a soup kitchen for the poor, cut and styled hair at the nursing home down the block (many of the ladies whose hair she was doing were younger than she was), and even had me help her set up a disaster station in her garage for the Red Cross during a devastating flood in 1979. Dorothy was also one of the most joyous and enthusiastic people I’ve ever known. She lived to be 102 years old.
Studies consistently show that volunteering is one of the best things a person can do to improve their own well-being. Volunteering is linked to a longer life, a more optimistic mood, a better sense of control, and higher rates of self-respect and happiness.
The Harvard Help Guide states that individuals who invest their time and energy into supporting others live longer than people who do not regularly help other people. Moreover, there seems to be a dose-response effect, whereby the more you help others around you, the happier and healthier you are likely to be.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD