A few weeks ago I went to Centralia for their celebration of antiques – they have a beautiful downtown, by the way. If you haven’t been you should visit the antique stores, lovely coffee shops, and a McMenamin’s that has a movie theater. While shopping I stumbled on a gold mine purchase in my life – a Shriner bobble head doll, still in it’s original box.
I love the Shriners. When I was 8 our next door neighbor was doing a medical school rotation at the Shriners Hospital in San Francisco, and upon seeing that I was confined to a wheelchair and in a fair amount of pain he asked if he could help. My parents told him that I’d seen a lot of doctors who said nothing could be done, and that my care would continue to be about pain management and mobility aids. My neighbor set me up with an appointment with some Shriners orthopedic specialists who looked into my case, took me in as a patient, and had me walking again, pain free, within six months.
One of my clearest memories of being at Shriners was walking up and down a hallway while some doctors watched my feet. One of my heels didn’t touch the ground and caused me great pain if and when it did -- this is something that caused them great concern. Each of them looked at each other, tilted their heads to the side while watching me and said, “well, what if we tried…” until they came up with a plan.
This is what the Shriners do – they take cases of children under a certain income level that they feel are underserved: burn victims, children with spinal chord injuries, and those with orthopedic problems and ask themselves what they can do to make sure that child is living the best life they can have. That starts from the moment you walk in the door at Shriners – you still have to go to school (they had their own teachers who helped you do homework sent from your school) and you had to get yourself there. For one girl that meant rolling herself down the hallway on a table they’d put wheels on.
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Not all the kids at Shriners were as lucky as I was – all that remains of my condition is a long scar on the back of my leg. But over the course of your time there they don’t set limits in the quest to make you mobile and pain free. Like all other Shriners patients, they continued to see me for free until I was 21. They had to kick me out -- I liked it there so much. That could be seen as an odd sentiment for someone to have for a hospital – but their version of hospital didn’t fit with what everyone else thought hospitals had to be. Everyone in the hospital was committed to improving lives, solving problems, and being present.
Community engagement comes in a lot of different forms – I spend quite a bit of time in conversation with folks who will tell you that problems in Olympia are intractable. They are things we have to live with. I guess it’s a legacy of my time with the Shriners that makes me so optimistic and willing to tilt my head to the side as people are talking and say, “well, what if we tried…”
Every journey starts with a single step, it’s true. And sometimes you have to learn how to take that step in the first place. Then you do one thing, and then another and another, and you see where those things take you.
SideWalk has housed 200 people and counting. Big Brothers Big Sisters just started matching kids with mentors again. Olympians in a group pledging to “Buy Nothing” are organizing a gigantic clothing swap. The Clean Team could sure use our help keeping up downtown Olympia. Community gardens are in full swing all over town. Do a thing --every day.
I miss my doctors at Shriners – they used to joke that I was too easy. They’d look up at me and wink -- saying, “that’s all you got for us? Come on now if you are going to be so mobile you should be running a marathon by now”.