As a long time chaplain in a cancer center and, more recently, helping to develop best practice in spiritual care for veterans of combat, the topic of resilience has been an interest and a mystery. The Holy Grail, if you will, of many researchers and mental health professionals in both of these fields has been to find a way to develop resilience in people so they are effectively immunized in whole or part against the psycho-social spiritual destruction of these life threatening illnesses or life threatening exposure to killing.
The good news here is that some people either have or develop this resilience and seem to emerge from these life experiences unscathed. So it is possible. The continuing frustration is no one has been able to figure out how to reliably duplicate whatever process is happening with these people in order to help others who are permanently scarred psychologically and spiritually- often to a devastating degree. We have had some success helping some who are scarred recover to some degree. Others seem to recover spontaneously through some mechanism which I certainly do not understand. However, others do not seem to recover at all.
Further, some not only recover from any wounds due to these events in their lives but emerge stronger. And others still are able to transform their experience and use it to become leaders in helping others. It is this latter group I have been thinking of recently as two people I considered extraordinary exemplars of it have died in the last couple weeks.
Dr. Jessie Gruman was diagnosed with her first cancer when she was 20. She survived that one and three others before her fifth cancer resulted in her death on July 14th at the age of 60. In 1992 she founded the Center for Advancing Health based in Washington and was its president until her death. She was a tireless advocate for evidence based practice and patient empowerment. Her blog and Twitter feed were sources of an unending stream of information on how to avoid or cope with all sorts of medical conditions. She also turned her experience into a book, AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You — or Someone You Love — a Devastating Diagnosis, to which I was privileged to make a very small contribution. It’s the book no one wants to have to own but anyone who needs it is very glad to have. Clearly, Jessie’s resilience extended way beyond her own personal coping to making a significant contribution to people generally are dealing with health issues.
Dr. Yehuda Nir was born in 1930 to a Jewish family in what was then part of Poland- now part of the Ukraine. His father was killed at the beginning of the war and he survived by pretending he was Roman Catholic. His childhood is fully described in his memoir, The Lost Childhood. Today he probably would have been diagnosed with PTSD. His family eventually made it to Israel where Yehuda educated himself, was admitted to medical school and, astoundingly, became a child psychiatrist. For seven years, he was head of child psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center during my time there as pediatric chaplain. He worked every day counseling children with cancer, their families, and the staff who took care of them. More than his clinical skill which was brilliant was his calmness, his centeredness, his compassion and his kindness. Normally a person who has experienced this kind of trauma does well if they can survive in the absence of anything that would remind them of that trauma. Yehuda Nir not only worked constantly in it for years, he translated his trauma into a great gift for children going through a life threatening trauma of their own. Yehuda Nir died on July 19th at the age of 84.
Part of me wants to understand how the resilience of people like Jessie Gruman and Yehunda Nir can be taught to others in the same position. However, if we did that, we might stop appreciating what extraordinary people they were and how amazing their contributions were in view of what they went through to get to where they did. On balance, I think I prefer unknowing awe.