I’ve been doing physical therapy for sixteen years. The first twelve were in outpatient, the last four in home care. In home care you work on some pretty sick folk. Folk close to the end. Every day is a reminder that we’re not here forever. Our lives must come to an end.
In the past four years, of the hundreds of patients I’ve worked with, and the multiple deaths I’ve been notified of, only two have really rattled me.
Don’t get me wrong, I take all of them to heart. I care about my patients. To me they’re not just a diagnosis or a visit on a schedule. They’re people. People with memories and families and reasons to live. People who have touched the lives of others and been touched themselves. The least I can do is give them my very best and take my work with them personally.
The two that rattled me were both older gentleman, soft-spoken, sincere. They’d lived a lot and accomplished much in their lives. They weren’t famous or rich or even particularly successful according to most people’s standards, but they were real, they were genuine, they were kind and giving and treated others with respect. I admired them.
I heard about both of their deaths via a phone call, after I had just seen them a couple days earlier. Both were relatively healthy, certainly not sitting on death’s doorstep. And both were hard to take.
Their deaths (and the deaths of so many others) serve to remind me of a few things:
- Life on this earth comes to an end. Sooner or later we all have to pay the piper.
- It’s up to us to leave fingerprints on the lives of others. To a significant degree, we determine the legacy we leave.
- Make every contact with every person count for something. For me, this means taking my job seriously and my contacts with patients personally. Never forget that they are people, not numbers or visits or diagnoses. It also means to take my writing seriously. It’s my way of touching folks I can’t meet personally.
Question: How can you more effectively impact the lives of others? Who do you come in contact with that you can touch in a personal way?
**This was first posted as a guest post at Into the Fire on Feb. 6.
With my full-time job in homecare physical therapy, I see patients every day who have had terrible things happen to them. Auto accidents that left them with multiple injuries and unable to walk for months; work accidents that shatter legs and destroy any hope of walking “normally” again; strokes; heart attacks; amputations; cancer; Parkinson’s that robs muscles of control and the brain of cogent thoughts. And you know what? Not one of them planned for it to happen. Not one scheduled their accident or episode or onset of disease.
Tragedy isn’t something you plan for. Heartache isn’t scheduled on anyone’s calendar.
This gets me thinking from time to time and I have to step back and take inventory of my life, of what’s important, of what I fight and live for. Things can change in an instant. One misjudgment, one lapse in attention, one rogue cell, one determined virus. And everything changes.
It happens, really. I see it every day and deal with the consequences, both physically and emotionally.
I also deal with death on an almost daily basis. The worst phone call I receive is when a nurse announces that another patient has “expired,” especially if it’s someone I’ve grown close to.
As is common for most of us, talk of illness, injury, and death spurs thoughts of life. We live once. It’s a gift given us and there’s no exchanging it or returning it. Once used it’s in the realm of history, written into the pages of eternity. The focus of life is not only the tape at the finish line, it’s how we run the race. And I want to run with no regrets.
This has been on my mind a lot lately, no regrets. I work with people every day who are at the end of life and some voice very openly the regrets they’ll carry to the grave. I can see the sorrow in the lines of their face, the cloud in the eyes. They wish their life would have turned out differently. They wish they would have loved more and hated less, listened to that advice they ignored, been more honest, paid more attention to their children.
Last year I worked with a woman who lived alone in a trailer with her elderly dog. She had no family, no friends, and, as far as she was concerned, no reason for living. After telling me all the mistakes she’d made in life she said, “I think about just ending it. All I have in the world is this trailer and my stupid dog.” I left her with tears in my eyes and a heavy lump in my throat.
There’s a Matthew West song I love called “The Motions.” Here’s a few lines from the chorus:
I don’t want to spend my whole life asking
What if I had given everything
Instead of going through the motions?
So where do we go from here, from the determination and declaration that we will make the most of what we have now and not end our life asking “What if . . .?” I think it means we have to make some changes right now.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts, in no particular order:
* Be in good standing with everyone you come in contact with; live in peace with everyone.
* Be the parent your kids need.
* Be the spouse your husband/wife deserves.
* Work hard and do your best at whatever your hands find to do.
* Never stop learning.
* Make a difference in the lives of the people you know.
* Never be ashamed of your faith and take every opportunity to talk about it, to defend it, and to encourage someone else with it.
* Be quick to apologize and quicker to forgive.
* Give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best.
* Take risks and spend some time on limbs.
* Recognize opportunities and seize them.
* Love others as you have been loved.
* Pursue humility and live by the rule of honesty.
When I was on the track & field team in high school I ran the 400 meter dash. At the end of the race I was spent, exhausted, and ready to vomit. I had run my best and left everything on the track. Wouldn’t it be great to do the same with this race of life, leave it all on the track?
On another note . . .
I’d been a Christian since I was eight years old, but God’s power truly showed up in my life 25 years later. I was in the hospital for surgery I’d had multiple times in the past due to a chronic condition. But when I woke up this time, I was paralyzed on my left side.
After years of physical, occupational and speech therapy, I had regained a lot of abilities previously taken for granted, but still couldn’t work or live on my own. Consequently, I was angry, resentful, and bitter at the surgeon, feeling that my life had no purpose anymore. The worst part though was my anger at God. After all, He’s all-powerful, so why didn’t he prevent it?
I buried my emotions for years until, one day, I blew up at two of the people I most loved and who had taken care of me the whole time–my parents. I was still dependent on them which made it worse, as I couldn’t escape and pretend it hadn’t happened.
It took many months of therapy, working through grief over everything I’d lost, and “yelling” at God when I spoke to Him, But over time, I came to realize that God hadn’t taken away my purpose in life and he hadn’t rid me of the ability to help others, He had simply changed what that would look like. So my “job” became trying to figure out what He wanted me to do now. That, in turn, required praying more and asking for guidance as to where to look. And that he would help me recognize the opportunities he set in front of me.
When circumstances come into your life that you can’t understand, talk to God. Be honest with Him. He already knows what you think and feel. And persevere. in His time, He’ll answer and, though the answer may surprise you, it’s His plan will be the best in the end.
For those of you who don’t know, my real job is in home care physical therapy. Every day I’m invited into people’s homes to address their physical maladies . . . and emotional and psychological. I talk to them, get to know them, laugh with them, and sometimes cry with them. It can be very fulfilling and very taxing as well.
I posted this on Facebook but since some of you don’t frequent “the book” all that much it’s worth mentioning again. I visited a man the other day, Italian guy from NYC, real Godfather type. When our session was over he shook my hand with both of his and said in his best godfatherly voice, “Michael, you’re good people. You’re welcome here anytime.”
I was honored. For him, giving me free access to his home, an open welcome, was obviously a big deal. It meant he trusted me and enjoyed my company.
Why? Because I saw him as not just a patient with a problem, but as a person, a living, breathing, flesh and blood person with feelings and desires and a life to get back to. And that meant a lot to him.
There’s a lesson to be learned here: as my dad taught me by both modeling and instructing, “People come first. Always.”
They come before protocols and regulations, before policies and procedures, before schedules and productivity requirements. People are at the center of God’s heart and should be at the center of ours.
I try to keep this in mind not only when doing my full-time job, but while doing my part-time job as well. I write for you, the reader. You’re always on my mind while I’m creating a story, how you’ll like this scene or what you’ll get out of that scene. How you’ll relate to the characers. I want my stories to bless and inspire you, to encourage and yes, even challenge you. My greatest desire is that you’ll walk away from my books changed. It may be a small change, barely noticeable to the outside world, or it may be a change that’s colossal, revolutionary. But either way, you’ve been affected and I’ve done my job.
As you go about your day, work your job, interact with your family, serve at your church, remember that important lesson: People come first.