Monday, December 31, 2012

To Be an 'Elder' -- Seeking Wisdom; Sharing Wisdom

Susan Rona, back in Montreal

Susan Rona, a Canadian educator, dedicated her career to proving that children, especially minority children, can succeed if their teachers believe that they can. It was a mission that absorbed her entirely.  And she was at the top of her game, having been invited to present her work to the European Parliament.
Then suddenly, it was gone.
“When I found myself retired, I didn’t make a decision to retire,” explained Susan, whose native tongue, Hungarian, aided her advocacy for Roma (gypsy) children in Eastern Europe. “This large international organization and I came to a point where it was time for us to part. So I went from my professional life being in 30 countries and feeling like my job in the world was to save the world -- especially  the lives of disadvantaged minorities and create a better world for them -- to doing nothing.”
The void she faced “terrified” her.
“I remember going to parties and people saying to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I had to run out the door or burst out crying because I just couldn’t answer that question. Over time, I developed an answer, which was, “I’m in transition.”
It was a response, really. Not an answer. 
Back home in Montreal, she kept searching.
“I spent a year seeing a life coach because I realized I didn’t need a therapist. I wasn’t depressed for no reason. I was situationally depressed because I didn’t know what to do with my life.”
At one point, the coach told Susan “that he saw me in my previous life as the captain of a ship who was constantly in rough waters and negotiating rough seas but that now I was a landlocked sailor who was looking out to sea and couldn't get out there -- and didn't necessarily want to get out there -- but didn't know what to do with myself.”

“That really spoke to me.”
So Susan asked herself, as a “landlocked sailor who didn’t want to manage any more boats and didn’t want to manage any more people and didn’t want to navigate rough seas, what is it that I did want to do?”
The answer came to her on an assignment for the Canadian government in the Yukon. At a meeting of First Nations people, “I was observing this woman who was an elder in the community and she wasn’t educated. But she was incredibly wise, and all the young people were looking to her for her insight and her wisdom.
“It was at that moment that I discovered that really what I wanted to be was an elder.
She no longer wanted to manage those “rough seas” anymore, “but I did want to support other people to do it well. And I wanted to be an elder in life, helping people find their paths through some of the wisdom I had developed over time.”

For that reason, Susan went on to train to become a professional, certified life coach. (

Susan had another wise role model. Her father. And it’s timely that I publish this story now, on the anniversary of his death, two years ago.

“Maybe watching and experiencing my wonderful father age with the grace that he had and seeing how he could lose his ability to walk, he could lose his ability to move, he could lose his independence and yet still remain such a powerful soul, who gave so much to everybody. The fact that I spent the last five years of my life before he died having him as the center, the core of my existence, I learned a lot. So I aspire to be a wise elder.”
No longer, says Susan, does she need to be famous or successful or make money.

“I don’t need any of that. All I want is to live in a way that I will have no regrets, giving to those whom I love and to those who I don’t necessarily love but can help. So I can support them through some of what I’ve learned.”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Are we using all our capacities? Could we (should we?) push ourselves harder, especially physically. In her weekly column for West Coast newspapers Helen Dennis starts out writing about the definition and perception of "senior citizen," then points to Paul Magelli as one of many who defies the stereotypes.
The senior director for the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Magelli, at 80, is preparing for his second climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Dennis writes: "Magelli had his first cardiac event at age 42, the same year his brother died of a heart attack. By age 45, Magelli had had three heart attacks. Not wanting to feel like a prisoner in his own body waiting for the next incident, he became engaged with research at the Mayo Clinic. What evolved was his first climb of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 79, hooked up to devices from the Mayo Clinic to study extreme activities of heart patients.

Paul Magelli
"A personal note: At a recent meeting where I met Magelli, an announcement was made that lunch was being served on the fifth floor. We were on the ground floor. Megelli said he was going to walk rather than take the elevator. I joined him. As we chatted, he moved at a fast clip. When we reached the fifth floor, he was as composed as he was on the ground floor. I did keep up with him with just a bit of effort on my part.

"These extraordinary achievements are admirable. But not everyone in their eighth decade, or even seventh or sixth, can accomplish such physical feats - or want to. Chronic conditions, obesity, less energy, depression and lack of desire can be disincentives to undertake such activities.
While we need to accept limitations, we also need to ask ourselves if we are using all of our capacities."

Dennis is a co-founder of Project Renewment

To read about her recent meeting at my house: meeting
For her full article:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Huda's Story of a Lifetime

When Huda Shanawani left her homeland,  her school, and her family -- supposedly for only three years -- she carried with her a dream that has taken her four long decades to fulfill.
Huda Shanawani, college prof at last
So now, as many her age are looking back on careers or are packing them in, she feels as if she’s only just arrived.
I met Huda over a cup of coffee in a hotel lounge where both our husbands were attending a meeting. As often happens when you meet a stranger, her story came pouring out. It’s much richer than this – and she promised me she’ll start writing it for her children – but here are the Cliff Notes:
It starts when Huda was 16, a schoolgirl in Syria. A friend of the family -- a medical student studying in the U.S. -- comes home to visit. His parents tell him he cannot return to America without taking a wife.
“It was a semi-arranged marriage,” Huda explained. “I did have a choice.” Her husband-to-be asks her, “What are your dreams?”
She says, “I want to finish high school.”
Arriving in New Jersey as a newly married 16-year-old was not the life that Huda had envisioned. “As a kid, kids dream," she said. “This was not my dream. My dream was to have a home, have children, and if I could, get an education along the way."
In Syria.
She thought that after medical school, she and her husband would have to – would want to -- return home, but “in the 1970s Syria was no longer a good place to raise children," she said. "And in the ‘80s all hell broke loose in Syria and we couldn’t go back.”
Because of her husband’s profession the couple were able to get U.S. citizenship early on, “which made it easier to live the life we dreamed of,” Huda said.
"We wanted to give our children the freedom of education, of thought, and of speech -- everything we were denied in Syria -- and the chance for them to pursue their dreams."
As she raised their four children, Huda remained determined to fulfill her goal of getting an education.
Her husband said he had no problem with her quest,  as long as she also managed the home front.
“I graduated from college when my youngest went to college,” she said. “I took one course at a time. I stuck it out.”
By Huda Shanawani
Along the way, for 30 years, she translated and interpreted for the New Jersey courts. She also painted and made ceramics. Finally, in 2008, she received a masters degree in art education.
Today, Huda is a college teacher, teaching Arabic at Union County College in Cranford, N.J. She has no plans to stop.
Many of her students have never left the city. Huda says she loves introducing them “to a world they’ve never seen.”
For sure, she’s not doing it for the money. “My teaching has nothing to do with money. You’d be shocked at how little I make. It’s getting out of the house and creating something.”
Here, in a land where she never expected to live out her life, she has clearly created more than something.

Said Huda: “One of the things I’m proud of is how proud my children are of me.”
Her age? “I’m turning 60 next year. I never hide my age. I have a child who is 40.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When Choice Was Not an Option

A reminder of the frightening era pre Roe v. Wade emerged today from a box of old college stuff I was (finally) tossing. (What is the staying power of those papers you got an A on but don't remember writing?)
Taped to the back inside cover of the address book I used back then was information a cousin had passed along to me in case I or any of my college friends needed it:

Dr. V...., Washington D.C.
Call at office -- say calling from out of town and want appt. as soon as possible. 
Do not argue, do what he says -- no discussion. 
About $500. 
Legit. doctor; done at office.

Daughters and sons,  we fought hard for your right to choose. Now, that ongoing battle is in your hands.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Elaine Woo's Last Day at Work: Hitting a "Walk-Off"

Dr. Elaine Woo

One of the most exuberant and energized people I know is a physician who recently decided to leave her longtime post at Mass General Hospital. Of course, Elaine Woo -- who also helped compose our college class show -- wouldn't leave without a coda. This is what she wrote to her former classmates, while exhorting them to stay involved and share their own stories of transition, (which I hope you do here!)

What do you suppose it feels like to hit a "walk-off" game winning home run at your very last at bat as a ballplayer? I know how it feels and here is my story.

As many of you know I became a physician and have spent almost the entire 38 years of doctoring as a hospitalist - a doctor who is responsible for the care of people who have been admitted to the hospital. I diagnosed and treated the medical problems but I also managed the fears and stoked the hopes of patients and family as they grappled with illness, disability and mortality. It was my identity as a physician.

Fast forward almost 40 years in a blink of the eye. The adaptations needed to keep up with the demands of modern medicine happened inexorably but never impossibly. My 65th birthday came and went, the Medicare application was something that others did while I remained a hospital employee with full benefits. And I never looked back or up until this past summer. It was the small things, actually...the white hair and slowed gait of people who had been interns with me, the applicants for the hospitalist team who were all younger than my son, greeting the dawn after a night on call side by side with these children who were springing off bright eyed to their day jobs while I staggered home to crash. 
And then it dawned on me that I was not enjoying myself anymore. Each 12 hour shift was becoming an increasingly challenging labor -- too many patients on the roster, too many disasters-in-waiting to be averted, too many questions for which I didn't have the ready answers. I was often on the run from the start to the end of the shift and too many times I was frightened for myself and for my patients. Every doctor has those moments but they should be few and far between and when they become commonplace, it’s time to take stock. I knew that some of this change was the result of changes in health care because my young colleagues felt it too, but I had to wonder if some of the pressure came from the fact that I was getting too... can I say it...Old(!)

So I told them that I was going to stop being a hospitalist and on August 27 I worked my last shift. On this last night there was time for anything and patience for anyone who crossed my path because they would be the last patients on my last shift. 

The last patient was a 45-year-old retarded man who had diabetes, kidney failure and an infection on his hand. It was 2 o'clock in the morning and he arrived on the floor with his exhausted parents who had been by his side since his arrival in the emergency room 12 hours before. They were his advocates and caregivers -- as they had been for his entire life and knew they would be until they couldn't do it anymore. It was a relatively simple task to take the history, do the exam, formulate a plan and write the orders admitting this patient to our service. 

But he was my last patient so I pulled up a chair and I let him and his parents have all the time they wanted to tell me what happened and to ask me what I thought and hear what was going to happen and I took the time to explain to them everything they needed and wanted to know. When we were done talking I headed to the nursing station and the patient's mother followed me. I thought perhaps she had one more question but she wanted to tell me something.

She said, "Doctor, I have been by my son's side for every visit and admission to the hospital since he was a young child. As you can imagine, I think I have spent more time in the hospital than at home and we have met a lot of doctors over the years. I just want you to know that you are the first doctor to sit down with us like you did and take this much time to listen to us and include us in your deliberations. And we really appreciate it more than you can know!"

It was 3:00 in the morning and in my last at-bat I had just hit a walk-off home run. This grateful mother had just validated my life’s work, confirmed that I had spent that life doing something I loved and doing it well. I will treasure that moment.

Elaine asks (and I do, too):
Do you have some moments that you treasure and want to share? Or perhaps you are wrestling with a transition. 
Contact me at and I will try to tell your story.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Guru of Sleep: Who's He 'Ferberizing' now?

Dr. Richard Ferber: now doing what he wants
As a young physician, Dr. Richard Ferber came up with an idea so compelling, so popular, so marriage-saving, that his name became a verb. His landmark book,  Solve Your Children's Sleep Problems, published in 1985 (and a second edition in 2006) taught frazzled parents a technique for getting their infants and toddlers to sleep through the night. Parents called the method, eventually tried by tens of thousands if not millions, "Ferberizing" their baby.
  What seems so natural -- to lull the baby to sleep in a rocking chair then tiptoe him into his crib, or to let her always fall asleep with a pacifier at bedtime and again in the middle of the night – can thwart a child’s ability to learn how to fall asleep alone.   Imagine the shock of waking up in the middle of the night with no rocking chair or no pacifier. It would be like falling asleep in your bed and waking up on the kitchen floor. 
Ferberizing taught parents how to give up what were often their own bad habits, so their children could learn good ones.

Two babies that Dick Ferber hasn’t Ferberized are his own twin grandchildren, 9 months old, though he now has the time to do it. Fourteen  months ago, he retired from his longtime post at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and relocated to Washington, D.C. to live with his new wife of 6 months and be near his youngest son and grandkids.

It’s hard for me to believe that more than 40 years ago “Ferbs” (as he was then called) and I ran in the same social circle at college. To my delight, he still recognized me when we met at a recent gathering of the New Jersey Sleep Society, where he spoke about the formative moments of his career in pediatric sleep medicine, most of which had to do with being a good listener.
As for his new phase of life, Dick seems to have moved into it with the joy one might feel after waking from a good night’s sleep. For some people, particularly those in medicine, their whole life is their career, he explained,  “and there just isn’t a life outside. They give up running the department, they still keep coming in and they get a smaller office further and further away and one day they just disappear.
“I had always promised myself that I would not do that, and I would leave when I was still healthy and able to do other things.”
One day, as he contemplated some of the administrative aggravations at work, it just came to him:  it was time to step down. The decision felt right. Just thinking of staying on made his chest tighten.
Now he is only as busy as he wants to be with lectures, writing, and some committee work.  He keeps a balance with a skill I have yet to master. 
 “I can say no. That’s the thing I like,” Dick said with a broad smile.  “I was asked to write a chapter, which actually sounded good, but I hate writing chapters, so I said no, I’m not gonna do it.” 
He loves the unscripted time. "It’s terrific getting up and doing what you want to do that day, and being with the kids."
But he’s staying very clear of one thing -- telling his son and daughter-in-law how to manage their children’s sleep issues.
”I absolutely, absolutely, for many reasons don’t want to be their pediatrician.”

For tips on sleep issues in kids: