This I Have Learned …
November 14, 2016 | by Holly Argent Tariq, Barry Berman and Roberto Muñiz
Essays from not-for-profit leaders.
Essays from not-for-profit leaders.
In these personal thought pieces, contributors reflect on the core values and beliefs acquired and lessons learned in our not-for-profit sector.
Don’t show your feelings lest people think you are weak or out of control. This notion, once unfamiliar to me, gained emphasis as I moved ahead in my ambulatory care administrative career. Women were often viewed as emotional creatures unable to control their feelings. A good administrator is stoic. Yet this behavior was completely out of character for me as I grew up in a Caribbean American family where feelings were readily displayed.
In 1996, fate brought me to St. Mary’s Center in Harlem, NY, a skilled nursing and adult day care program for people living with HIV and AIDS. At the time, AIDS treatment was experimental; death was a constant companion.
One day a resident wanted to discuss her complaints about the services. We agreed to meet after lunch. I went to her room, and we talked. She was about 40 but looked much older. She had gray frizzled hair, few teeth, and she was frail and in a wheelchair. Life had not been kind to her.
She had a litany of complaints. According to her, nursing care was terrible, the food wasn’t fit for animals, and housekeeping didn’t do anything all day. I listened while she continued complaining about residents being rude, family not visiting and her overall life. She blessed me with a picture of the fullness of her feelings about her current condition.
As I wrote her issues down and promised to get back to her, I realized the depth of her complaints. It wasn’t the St. Mary’s services. It was everything in her world and she had AIDS.
When I left her room, the nurse’s aide was providing care. While walking down the stairs, I pondered the encounter. I thought about what I could do to help improve her life. Then I heard the operator page “Code Blue.” The team responded immediately. When I got to the lobby, I asked who coded. It was my resident. Later, I found out she died. It was all I could do to keep my composure.
At home, I called my mother, a retired hospital executive and nurse. I was sobbing as I relayed the story to her. She said, “You can’t work there if this is how you react. They are all going to die.”
On that day, I knew she was wrong and that it was my human right to share my feelings of grief. We who serve people in the long-term care community should not be deprived of this most basic expression of love, loss and respect.
Through the years, my colleagues and I have shared many tissues and many tears as we have said goodbye to residents. Thank you, Sheila, for giving me the gift of expressing my feelings in public. It has made me a better administrator and a far better leader.
- Holly Argent Tariq is CEO of St. Mary’s Center, New York, NY.
The first time I met Steve Saling was by chance in 2007, just months after he received a devastating ALS diagnosis at age 38. At the time, he was given a life expectancy of 3 to 5 years. Both he and I knew that soon he would be unable to walk, talk or live alone. Having been in the health care field for over 40 years, I wondered how to help individuals like Steve—and if creating neurological specialty residences for individuals with ALS and MS was even possible. The big question: How do we build, with limited funds, a $38 million state-of the-art Green House® home that caters to people on Medicaid?
It was the residents themselves who inspired me to dream. Steve, a landscape architect by trade, helped design the neurological specialty residences and found the right technology that would allow residents to close doors, turn lights on and off, change TV channels, control heat and air conditioning, and send and receive email through a computer mouse on a wheelchair. In short, technology provided him a level of independence he never dreamed possible.
Due to Steve’s perseverance and the extreme generosity of philanthropists, the Leonard Florence Center for Living (LFCL) opened in 2010. It was the first urban model skilled nursing Green House® in the country. Today, the center operates 3 specialized ALS and MS homes. Steve is busy traveling, spending time with his son and attending sporting events and movies; he even goes sailing and skydiving. As he often tells me, “It’s a matter of constantly redefining normal. Until medicine proves otherwise, technology is the cure.” And he always adds, “I can’t imagine enjoying life more.”
Yet another resident reinforced my belief that dreams do come true. Patrick O’Brien is the most severely disabled individual I have ever met. Patrick, a talented DJ and producer, is completely immobilized and on a ventilator. Prior to living at LFCL, he was confined to one room—and one bed—unable to do anything but stare at the ceiling. I will never forget the day Patrick moved into the LFCL and saw his new surroundings. Both of us had tears in our eyes.
Through it all, Patrick never gave up hope of becoming a filmmaker. Although his only means of communication is by moving his eyebrows, he painstakingly worked on his movie. In 2015, he produced and directed an award-winning documentary about living with ALS. Entitled “Transfatty Lives,” this highly acclaimed film won numerous awards, including the Audience Award at the Tribeca and Milano Film Festivals.
We started with a vison. Through philanthropy—and the most courageous residents imaginable—we were able to turn our dream into a reality. These residents have taught me, over and over again, that individuals should never abandon their dreams. Dreams do come true.
- Barry Berman is CEO of the Chelsea Jewish Foundation, Chelsea and Peabody, MA.
I stop in a coffee shop almost every day on my way to work and have become friendly with most of the employees, but more so with a woman who serves me my much-needed second cup of the day. On my early-morning visits, I have learned about her family, her hopes and dreams, job worries and more. As a habit I often buy a lottery ticket and pass it on to her. One day, the ticket was a winner, with a prize of $374! When I stopped in the next morning, she immediately wanted to split her winnings with me. Of course I said no. The ticket was a gesture of kindness; I expected nothing in return.
I learned this lesson early on, when as a 15-year-old I came to the United States from Puerto Rico with my mother and several siblings. I often accompanied my mom to the outpatient department of a local hospital for her medical visits, x-rays and lab work. While walking the hallways, I became friendly with Ms. Pellicer, a pharmacist who would always take time to greet us and have conversations with me in Spanish. I also had the great fortune to meet Mr. Horowitz, an 80-year-old part-time registered pharmacist who, for reasons unknown to a young, Spanish-speaking teen, took an interest in me and encouraged me to become a hospital volunteer. He helped me get a weekend job in the pharmacy as a stock boy—my first foray into the health care system. A few years later, he provided my first recommendation letter for college acceptance.
Through hard work, perseverance and the support of family, friends and a few key people like Mr. Horowitz, Ms. Pellicer and others, I made my way. I learned a new language, graduated high school, received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and found a career in health care that I am passionate about. At the time, I did not realize all these people were offering me a life lesson that would stay with me throughout my career.
All along my journey I have had support from many people. Whether they provided inspiration, advice or resources, what was common throughout was they expected nothing in return.
It’s a lesson learned through experience, and once it happens to you often enough, you begin to practice it yourself without even realizing. For me, whether as a community leader, an instructor at Rutgers University, a mentor to young aging-services professionals or an advisor to my own staff, I am eager to share my time and knowledge—expecting nothing in return.
I’m glad this lesson came early in my life. It has shaped the way I think about others and helped me be more empathetic. It’s something I hope I put into practice every time I am in contact with a friend, colleague, business associate or family member.
On my busiest days, when my schedule is packed and a call comes in with an unexpected request, I try to recall Mr. Horowitz, who had nothing to gain but the admiration and gratitude of a young man. Then I pick up the phone and say, “Hi, this is Roberto. How can I help you?”
When you expect nothing in return, you gain more than you could imagine. This is a life lesson that continues for me on a daily basis.
- Roberto Muñiz is president and CEO of Francis E. Parker Memorial Home Inc., Highland Park, NJ.