Thursday, November 12, 2015
The miracle workers
“Oh, if you were like me
You didn't have a lot of gold
Possessions or money
You didn't own wealth untold
But I'm glad
You didn't look on the things that I had
But you looked on the things you were able to give me.”
—CeCe Winans, “In Return”
I saw this woman once in clinic. It was December and she'd caught 2 buses to reach us just to get her blood pressure checked and to get her medication refills. And at the end of that visit we were talking about the holidays and such and she let me know that Christmas used to be her favorite but now wasn't. And I won't belabor this with some elaborate tale but instead will go ahead and cut right to the predictable chase and let you know that it had to do with her financial situation. She had an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son who wouldn't get a single gift because she couldn't afford it.
But they had food and a warm home, you know? And she seemed cool with all of that. Like, she wasn't all super melancholy or mad dramatic about it. It just was what it was. And even that—the fact that this was her normal and clearly she'd figured out how to navigate it—isn't the point. I really tell you this to tell you about something else that happened after this encounter.
And let me just preface this by saying that what happened after that encounter wasn't exotic or unusual at all. Instead it was something that happens on a daily basis in hospitals like Grady all over the country.
I called our social worker. And all I did was tell her about this woman and her situation. Then, like our social workers do, she came over to the patient and sat down and spent time finding out her situation. Next thing I knew, some community resources were identified that happened to service the area right where my patient lived. And they were willing and also able to help this woman give her kids just a little bit of magic on Christmas morning.
It was short notice. We were like 3 days shy of Christmas, so that social worker went to wherever she got those resources, retrieved some gift cards and personally went out and bought things for those children herself. Then she delivered it to my patient's home along with some stuff for her to present it to her kids as gifts.
She sure did.
A man I cared for on the hospital service had been ill and was estranged from his family due to a multi-year drug stronghold. He'd been unstably housed and mostly on his own or in the streets. But this illness was serious and sidelined him in that way that no one ever wants to be sidelined. “Where are your people?” I asked. And I asked that because in a place like Georgia everyone has “people.” Or even “peoples” as some folks say. Anyway. This man said he did have people but that he didn't know where they were or how to reach them. The names were patched all together in a ragged little tapestry that fractured into pieces the minute any of us tried to pull it all together.
Then I told the social worker. And that social worker stepped in and got to work. And if you work at a place like Grady or have had any contact with a great and dedicated social worker, you know that there is no need to even say “spoiler alert” before anything else. She found that man's people. And his peoples, too. And those folks were worried and glad and thankful to be able to come to the side of their family member during that time.
Finding somebody's people or peoples may not seem like a big deal to you but it is. And when things like drug addiction and untreated mental health issues and time stand as looming barriers, many times it's a downright miracle when those pieces get put together. And even more of a miracle when something right and good happens as a result.
But this—these sorts of ordinary miracles—happen every single day at Grady. And in this moment I am reflecting on our social workers, the miracle workers who open the doors and windows that have been painted shut for so many for so long. I cannot do what I do without them. The obstacles are too great; my caring alone is not enough.
Earlier this month, one of my favorite Grady social workers of all time died. She fell ill swiftly and was gone in the twinkling of an eye. And when I heard the news it truly broke a piece of my heart. Truly, it did. Because she was my friend. Or rather, we were very friendly. And I realized that I loved her. And no, not in the eros sense but something different. More like some hybrid between the brother-sisterly philos love and the nebulous agape-type love that one experiences spiritually. Somewhere in my deep appreciation for the selfless contributions of every single social worker I've known through the years, my heart felt a particular sadness at this loss because of that love.
She, Mrs. Veronica Smallwood, was a wonderful human being. Let me not trivialize that piece. But no, she was not the social worker involved in those 2 aforementioned encounters. That said, in countless other ways she was.
Does that even make sense? I know. I'm probably rambling.
Either way, I'm feeling this weird mixture of sorrow and deep, deep gratitude. It's hard to explain, but I'm trying.
And so. To honor her life, today I honor her peoples—the social workers like her. The selfless legion of women and men who stand ready to help people find soft places to land. The ones who navigate the red tape of socioeconomic speed breakers and mysterious Medicare rules and nefarious nursing home situations. The fearless servant leaders who run into the burning houses armed with nothing more than clipboards and willing hearts and who, on my watch, are often the ones who pull the screaming baby or decrepit elder from the asphyxiating plumes of black smoke before anyone else. Just in the nick of time. Yet so interestingly they quietly hand them over to someone else just in time for them to get the glory.
That last sentence just brought tears to my eyes. Because it is so, so true.
Mrs. Veronica Smallwood and her peoples have helped me help others more times than I can count. Surely I could fill an entire blog up with daily tales of these very moments like the two above. I could fill one book alone with just stories of things Mrs. Smallwood specifically did to assist my care of patients for the last fifteen years. I surely could. And I am deeply grateful for it all. I am.
You know? I told Veronica how much I appreciated her every single time I called her or saw her. Not because I foresaw this, but just because it was how I felt and she always gave me space to be honest. I take some solace in that. I do. But I guess today, I felt the need to go and tell it on the mountain. Not just how thankful I am for Mrs. Smallwood, but instead putting a bullhorn to my lips to shout to the world who the real miracle workers are in a place like Grady. In a place dedicated to serving the undeserved? It's them. The ones stealthily making dollars out of fifteen cents day after day after day and leaping from often dilapidated buildings in a single bound--the social workers.
The bible says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matt 23:11.)
That. That. That.
Happy Wednesday. And thank you for being the greatest among us at Grady, Mrs. Smallwood. You will be missed. And today you are remembered.
*And shout out to Mrs. Valerie Beaseley and Mrs. Dorothy Zimmer, respectively, the 2 miracle workers who made things happen in the two 100% true stories above.
Now playing on my mental iPod, for you and all of your peoples, Mrs. Smallwood. “In Return” as sung by the matchless CeCe Winans. Perfect lyrics for the ones who bless our patients every day at Grady and ask for nothing in return.
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
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