Nancy and Paul--Back in 1970, Paul and Nancy were a great young couple. Paul had just finished an accounting degree and an MBA at the University of Utah. Nancy taught piano and cut hair in their apartment living room while raising their 1 year old boy, Robert. Their second son, Randy, was born shortly after they moved from Salt Lake City to San Francisco to accept Paul’s first job as a CPA. Six months later Nancy was expecting again, but this child was born 3 months early and didn’t survive. Paul began to struggle with a skin condition on his right foot. The Doctor told him it was a fungus like athletes foot. In addition, within weeks Paul lost his job and the family returned to Salt Lake City to be closer to family.
After a few more months the skin problem was correctly diagnosed as a rare Ewing sarcoma that had already metastasized to his lungs. Paul continued to work as a CPA while participating in aggressive chemotherapy and radiation in the evenings. Paul was a private man, so Nancy was surprised when she attended one of his treatments and was informed that Paul only had a few weeks to live. Paul worked until 3 weeks before his death. Nancy was 26, Robert was 5, and Randy was 3.
The first few weeks were very hard on Nancy. She had seen Paul suffer horribly for 15 month and was glad that he was no longer in pain, but she didn’t have time to grieve. She couldn’t understand how God would leave her without a husband or her children without a dad. She distinctly remembers a conversation with herself: "Nancy, you have 2 choices, you can either stay angry and let it get you down and be bitter or you can rise above it and be a better, stronger person. There is no middle ground.” Through this time she got great support from her Mormon neighbors who were "tripping over each other” to help her out, including paying for the funeral expenses. Her parents and Paul’s parents played a central role in helping them get through, especially her father-in-law who built a beauty salon in her basement.
Nancy and Paul, 3 weeks before he died
At the top of Brighton Ski Resort
Dave and Shawna--Dave and Shawna were a great young couple. They fell in love in middle school, dated through high school, and married in the first years that Dave studied at the University of Utah. During the lean college years they lived in a mortuary to save on rent, but still managed to grow their family with 2 boys—Todd and Brett. Their life changed 2 years after graduating. One evening Shawna went to bed feeling flu-like symptoms. She woke up during the night, went into the bathroom and passed out on the floor. Dave called 911 and started CPR. She was taken to the hospital by paramedics and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. It was later concluded that she had died of congestive heart failure, probably caused by a virus. Dave was 26, Todd was 4, Brett was 1.
None of them got to say good-bye to Shawna and they didn’t have the opportunity to get their affairs in order. For Dave, the first days were a shocked blur, but he managed to stay focused through the funeral. Then as support waned, reality set in. He needed to learn how to take care of the house by himself, shop, raise the kids, and continue to pay the bills. He distinctly remembers putting the boys to bed one night and then collapsing on the floor crying under the weight of the demands on his body and the loss in his heart.
Fortunately they were able to get by because Dave had been the sole breadwinner and his in-laws took turns watching the kids during the week. Dave was sustained by his faith, which provided a larger perspective of the unexpected changes and gave purpose to his efforts.
Nancy and Dave--These deaths occurred 9 days apart. Three months later, Nancy and Dave were set up on a date by several mutual friends. After 4 months of courtship, Nancy and Dave married. Their shared history helped them to start out on equal ground in the relationship. The recent events were constantly on each others’ minds and they talked about it all the time. They found meaning in how their relationship offered a better future for their boys. Their shared faith helped them weather the hard times. Together, they had 3 more children: Heidi, Jyll, and Chad. When Chad was born, the oldest of their kids was 10. Nancy and Dave recently celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary. All their children are married and have their own children.
Randy and Randall--While all of my professional colleagues know me as Randall, people who knew me before grad school still call me Randy. Dave and Nancy are my parents and their children are my siblings. While I never met Shawna and have few memories of Paul, all 4 of my parents animate my life and guide my care. They urge me to invite my patients’ family members to appointments. Their friendships encourage me to inquire about my patients’ friendships and to encourage peer support programs in my clinic and community. Their faith inspires me to check-in on people’s spiritual activity and to encourage them to reconnect with their own faith traditions.
Similarly, while Randy is only physically present when I visit family in Salt Lake City or catch-up with high school friends on facebook, he still lives within me. Being raised in a home that was initially defined by morbidity and mortality had a deep impact on my decision to seek a career in medical settings. Having parents who had close involvement with medical professionals, committed friends, and an involved community led me to seek a clinical environment that extended well beyond the therapist’s office. Randy is aware that my parents didn’t seek assistance from counselors or psychologists during these hard times. Mental health services were not part of their lives—but talking with their church leaders and going to the doctor was. Their experience as they struggled with the loss of their loved ones and in bringing together 2 families is frequently on my mind when I see patients and train residents in whole-person care.
Randy and my parents hold me to this standard.