If you look up the name of Helen. B. Taussig, you will find that she founded the field of pediatric cardiology and is famous for developing, in the 1940’s, a procedure called the Blalock-Taussig shunt. It saved the lives of countless “blue-babies” who would otherwise be doomed to death. Needless to say when twenty years later I arrived at Hopkins in pediatric psychiatry as a mental health counselor intern, Dr. Taussig was a very famous physician. One day I saw her on an elevator. She was wearing a white doctor “coat.” I remember that her name was embroidered over the pocket red thread: Helen Taussig, MD. I was in awe of her!
Several days later I was actually introduced to her. She asked me what I was doing in pediatric psychiatry and I told her that I was trying to learn to do therapy with children. She must have known that she had something to teach me, because one day she invited me to her home for tea. After a short sit in her tearoom, she suggested I accompany her to her greenhouse. I did not know then that it was there that the lesson would be taught.
Dr. Taussig had many plants and each one got individual and measured attention. A little water here with some plant food, different plant food there with no water at all, and little or a lot of water for some other plants with varying amounts of this or that food. We walked among the rows of plants in what seemed like utter silence until we reached the end. Then she said, “Children are like these plants. You have to nurture each one individually and give to each exactly what is needed, no more, but surely no less.” End of lesson one.
Rarely did I see Dr. Taussig after that, only in passing, and never after my internship was done, but I did not forget her lesson nor how she taught it. See each person as an individual, treat with care, and give exactly what is needed to nurture and facilitate growth.
I learned the second lesson ten years later having had the good luck to be in a few day-long workshops with Viktor Frankl. The group was large. And the room was packed. One afternoon he talked about a specific incident. What happened follows. One night at four AM Frankl was awakened by a stranger who called him on the telephone. The stranger said that he had found Frankl’s name in the phone directory. The stranger also reported that he was going to commit suicide. “I listened to him for about an hour, as he gave reason after reason why he wanted to die,” Frankl said. Finally, when the man gave no more reasons for wanting to end his life, Frankl elicited a promise that the “client” would not kill himself until after four o’clock the afternoon of the next day when an appointment was made for the two to talk face-to-face.
At four the man appeared at Frankl’s office, no longer suicidal. When Frankl asked had what happened in the intervening hours to cause the change, the man said that the change was in his thought process. He said that he marveled that if a stranger, a famous physician no less, would talk with him in the dead of night with no thought of remuneration and no request other than the meeting the next day take place, then the world could not be such a sorry place. Frankl’s availability had saved a life. Frankl became the man’s therapist. The man not only clung to life but began to thrive. Lesson two: when people cry out in need, the only good response is “Here I am.” Frankl’s point; be there!
“If you and I could live every moment with an awareness of our mortality, of the fact that sooner or later we will die, then we would live every breathing moment as if living and loving were the exact same thing,” said Elizabeth Kubler Ross in a master class that I was invited to attend. Kubler-Ross is known by many counselors as the “death and dying lady,” famous for outlining the psychological stages one goes through when learning of impending death. In the workshop that I attended, Dr. Kubler Ross talked only about life and how to live it. Living and loving means living with gratitude and forgiveness. It means being aware that you have only so many hours to live and to model living with love.
Kubler-Ross did just that. She taught by the way she lived her own life. It is not easy to work day after day with the dying, and then write and talk about it. She said that she could embrace her calling only because being aware of her own impending death caused her to live with love. And thus, she taught lesson three: Be aware that you will one day die, so today, choose to love, and by loving, you choose life. From this comes genuineness, respect, and empathy for your clients and yourself.
Three lessons taught. Three lessons learned.
Principle, PsyCoun Institute