Sunday, January 31, 2010


The following arrived in my inbox today as one of those "forwards" that get passed around.  In keeping with current events, the motivation was to engender compassion for Haitians who are suffering so much from the earthquake of almost 3 weeks ago now.  But for me it has a deeper resonance:

The eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked
what she regarded as the earliest sign of civilization.  Was it
an axe-blade, an arrowhead, a fishhook, or something more
sophisticated, such as a musical instrument or a ceramic

Her answer surprised her questioner:  "A healed human

Not something made by a human, but something human;
not an artifact, but a part of someone who once lived and
walked the earth, who was hurt but healed.
Doctor Mead explained that where the law of the survival of
the fittest reigns, a broken leg means certain death - when
you cannot make it on your own, you're doomed.  But a
healed leg-bone is physical evidence that someone cared.
Someone gathered food for that injured person  until their
leg was healed; someone cared for them until they could
once again care for themselves.

The first sign of civilization was COMPASSION.

The meaning to me:

When I was in second grade, we moved to a neighborhood where there was a boy about 2 years younger than me who lost both of his legs below the knee because of a fire.  I discovered this when we were playing in playground sandbox and I happened to bump into his calf and it made a resounding 'thunk'.  When I looked at what I earlier thought was flesh, there was a distinct mesh pattern in what appeared to be plastic.  They were Mark's prostheses.

Then in 6th grade I was hospitalized to have my tonsils out.  My room was a four bed ward with only two beds occupied.  Me and the other occupant, another  boy named Mark who had cerebral palsy and was hospitalized for orthopedic surgery on his leg.  I watched another Mark face the challenges of limited mobility, donning his brace and crutches to get where he wanted to go.

From that point I decided that I wanted to be a physical therapist.  It seemed to me that learning how to help people with movement difficulties was a reasonable way to make a difference in the world.  It also happened that there was a woman from my home town who was a prominent physical therapist and her niece was one of my good friends.  So now there was a goal and a role model.

Through junior high, high school, and college admissions there was only one thing I wanted to be:  a physical therapist who focused on physical rehabilitation. That goal was achieved, and for 22 years, that's what I did.  Mostly in pediatric settings and mostly with individuals who had suffered some sort of neurologic injury. 

In 1996 I had a patient with a spinal cord injury who needed a pressure relief cushion to keep from getting a bedsore on his bottom.  Decubitus ulcers (aka bedsores) are a leading cause of death in individuals who have suffered complete spinal cord injury.  It was the demise of Christopher Reeves after his valiant struggle.  In the course of that week in 1996, I had many telephone conversations with an insurance case manager 1,500 miles away who repeatedly denied coverage for that $400 cushion.  I did everything within my power to provide: documentation, photographs, physician reports, review of the literature and research.

This case manager, with no background in medicine, denied the cushion because it was her job to keep down durable medical expenses.  If what she did resulted in a major hospitalization and ultimately death for the patient, that wasn't her job.  Someone else was charged with managing hospital expenses.  I didn't ask who was ultimately responsible for mortality issues.

It was that week, after 22 years, that I decided I was done.  Done with working in organized health care in the United States.  The system was broken, I had a family to care for at home and we could live on my husband's salary.  That was 14 years ago and the health care system in this country has only gotten worse.

So yes, the message from Margaret Mead should inspire us to compassion.  Not only to those in Haiti, but in our own country as well.  Shame on anyone who would deny the most basic care to their fellow citizens and portray it as a "redistribution of wealth" or distort critical decision making as "death panels".  

It's time to get back to understanding what makes us truly human and made us a great country in the past.

I'd like to order up a big helping of Compassion.  Hold the partisan politics please.


  1. Thank you for this powerful testimony.

  2. It's time to wrestle control of Congress from the lobbyists so that the men and women we elected to office will listen to and represent their constituency - us! The system is broken indeed. Eloquent, Valerie. Thank you.

  3. What a powerful post. I agree. Thank you, Valerie.

  4. AMEN!! Very well said, thank you!

  5. We aren't, on the whole, a compassionate country, are we? It is sometimes (often) sad and disspiriting.

  6. Thank you for putting it all into words.

    Most people don't understand just how broken the system is until they have cause to use it, or become tangled up in it... will be a big undertaking to untangle the mess..but we need to start finding a few common threads


tie in the loose ends...