Tag Archives: humanitarian

The Didactic Silence of Sir Nicholas Winton.

By Chris Warren.

Rare is the man who does something great and keeps it to himself. In a time of instant gratification and “likes” and ever escalating public self affirmations, simply doing the right thing only because it’s the right thing and not for recognition seems like an anachronism. A lot of people perform good deeds —which is awesome— and then go and brag about it, usually on the internet. It’s almost as if they are really doing it for themselves and the benefit to others is merely a pleasant side effect.

In late 1939 Nicholas Winton was a young English stockbroker looking forward to a leisurely ski trip in Switzerland when at the last moment he changed his plans and went to Prague, Czechoslovakia instead to help a friend with humanitarian work. Hitler was marching across Europe and there were a lot of innocent bystanders, particularly children. On a whim and with no resources, experience, or diplomatic contacts, Winton remained in Prague for months and singlehandedly arranged safe passage to England for 669 Jewish children who would have otherwise been murdered by the Nazis.

For fifty years, Winton never told anyone about what he did. In the late 1980s, his wife found a scrap book with detailed evidence of her husband’s pre-war rescue effort. Only then did the rest of the world find out about Nicholas Winton’s amazing act of altruism. On a BBC television program he was reunited with some of the kids he saved, who by then were senior citizens with children and grandchildren of their own. Until that time none of them knew the backstory of how they ended up in England or who was responsible for whisking them to safety before the Nazis came.

Since then, Winton was knighted by the Queen of England and has been given so many other awards and honors it’s hard to list them all. There are statues memorializing his work; a school in Czechoslovakia and an asteroid in outer space are named after him. Through all this, Sir Nicholas Winton has kept his composure and acknowledges his selfless deed only when asked about it. He comes from an era when there was no internet or social media, but I think even if it were an option in 1939, Winton would not have been on Facebook congratulating himself and fishing for “likes”.  After all, he kept it to himself for half a century and reluctantly talked about it only after someone else outed him.

“When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:2)

Winton is not known to be a religious person but those of devout faith can learn a lot from his attitude. He had no ulterior motives and did what he did solely because it was right and good. I believe there are others like Winton out there today; you will seldom hear about them because they are looking beyond their own presumptuous egos and don’t concern themselves with being noticed. Christianity teaches that those who boast about their good deeds will receive no Heavenly reward beyond their own bragging. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then Sir Nicholas Winton’s humble and understated life says more about him than any self indulgent internet platitudes could ever approach.


Strong Enough To Throw A Star.

By: Chris Warren.

There is a well known story by American author Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) that goes something like this:

“There was an old man who would take a walk on the beach every morning before he began his work. One day, he was walking after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. He noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer and the man called out, ‘Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?’ The young boy paused, looked up, and replied ‘Throwing starfish into the ocean. The storm has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,’ the youth replied. ‘They will die, unless I throw them back into the water.’ The old man replied, ‘But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.’ The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, ‘It made a difference to that one!’” (adapted from The Star Thrower, 1969, 1977).

Numerous versions of this story are floating around out there, but the lesson is the same: Very few of us will change the world for everyone, but one person can make a difference to someone, and to that someone it’s a very big deal.

In 1991 Cathy was a middle aged working mom with four kids who earned a modest living as a call center service rep at a large company. A few blocks up the street from her office was a well worn and austere apartment building used for low income senior housing. Owned & operated by a local faith-based charity that clearly had more good intentions than money, nobody would choose to live there unless the alternative was a cardboard box by the railroad tracks.

One day Cathy recruited a coworker to help her deliver a chair to a friend over lunch break. They pulled up to the senior housing building in Cathy’s beat up old minivan with a large padded recliner chair crammed in the back. The coworker was a strong, young twenty-something male specifically chosen to provide the muscle needed to lug the heavy piece up several floors to an apartment door in a dark hallway.

A weak old lady answered the door and warmly hugged and greeted Cathy. As they entered, the lady candidly mentioned, “I think I had a little accident in the bed.” There is no delicate way to describe it: Wall to wall, floor to ceiling , the place smelled, literally, like shit. The young guy set the chair near the window; it looked out of place as the only decent piece of furniture in the entire apartment. He waited uncomfortably while Cathy helped the lady change in the other room and hoped they didn’t know that he knew about the wretched, disgusting funk in the air. His courtesy of feigning ignorance was pointless since there was no possible way not to notice the “accident.” There was some idle chit-chat, and the pair of coworkers headed for the door. On the way out, Cathy tells the old lady, “I hope you like your chair. I’ll come by later and finish cleaning up. You’ll be ok till then.”

On the short trip back to the office, Cathy explained to the visibly puzzled young man that she met the old woman months back through a random encounter at the store and simply “adopted” her. At the end of the workday, Cathy returned to the dumpy apartment to take care of her friend; he went to his clean, odor-free home in a nice neighborhood.

Star-throwers are hard to spot because they deliberately avoid being noticed. Like mysterious little spirits, they quietly go about performing good deeds. The boy on the beach didn’t say anything about what he was doing until someone asked, and Cathy did not disclose the true purpose of the lunch hour chair-moving mission to her young helper until the topic could no longer be avoided.

Nearly everyone at some point in their life has helped others. Lots of people are habitually helpful, but not everyone is a star-thrower. True star-throwers go beyond doing something nice once in a while. They instinctively see stars that others miss. In a world that is so difficult for so many, stars should be easy to find like the beach in Eiseley’s parable. But in the real world they can and often do hide in plain sight. People in need may mask their difficulties, be too embarrassed to ask for help, or be in denial that they have a problem. More likely, many of us don’t want to notice the stars all around.

Loren Eiseley teaches that the need is far greater than one person can handle and admonishes lazy bystanders through the character of the old man. Sooner or later the boy must stop throwing starfish. He feels sorrow for all those he did not get to and guilt for leaving them behind but knows that at least some of them are safely back in the water. Compare that to the attitude of the old man, who not only saw no higher purpose in throwing starfish to begin with but also has the nerve to tell the boy that it’s better to let them all die than to save just a few.! Uncharitable people often use this twisted logic to explain away their lack of compassion. It’s easy to say the job is too big and assuage one’s guilt for not even trying than to give one’s best effort and know it would have mattered to someone. Mocking others for doing what you are too unmotivated to take on yourself is an old bit.

When I agreed to help move the chair, it never entered my mind that doing an ordinary favor was going to result a lesson that I would remember for years and years. I later lost contact with Cathy but her sense of humanity and kindness and showing love to God by showing love to others will never leave me. There are so many stars. Like the boy on the beach, Cathy knows she will never save all of them. The apartment building is still there. I seriously doubt the old lady is alive. She was in her late 70s or early 80s at the time. This incident happened twenty three years ago. Either by luck or divine intent two souls were both in the right place at the right time and again proved the old man wrong. A Star-Thrower made a difference to a poor,  sick, elderly lady who was tossed back into the life giving sea so she would not whither and die on a beach.



Nurses: We Should Care About The Caregivers.


By: Chris Warren.

Late night phone calls almost never bring good news. Everyone has experienced being whacked out of a dead sleep by a ringing phone, and the first thought is, someone died. In a best-case scenario, it’s a wrong number. My blood pressure drops to pre-freak out levels and I roll over and go back to sleep. As a group, my circle of friends and family are emotionally stable and seldom require a late night consultation with anyone, much less the likes of me. So when the phone rings in the darkness and they are not calling with a death or serious injury notification, it’s not vanity. They’ve got my undivided attention.

When my foggy eyes focused on a squawking cellphone and I saw it was my friend Phil, I initially did not think much of it. Phil works odd hours and it’s not unusual for him to be up at 2:00 am. I thought he might be messing with me. I’ll be a good sport and play along. Instead of making me the victim of a prank, Phil was clearly upset and went into a no-limits explanation about how stressed out and unhappy he was at his job. The lack of management support, workplace politics, the weird schedule, physical demands, and the overload of work assignments were pulling him apart. This was not about one bad day. I could hear the hurt in his voice. Phil is not used to needing help. He’s always the guy giving it, usually to people who are very sick and suffering. Phil is a nurse.

When I was researching for this blog article and googled “job stress among…” the auto-fill listed “nurses” in second and fifth place. Google does nothing randomly. The more popular a search term is, the higher it lands on the list of suggested search options. That “nurses” claimed two of the top five results is not just evidence of it being a hot topic a lot of other people are interested in, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem.

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Times are tough, jobs are hard to get, and everyone who is lucky enough to be employed is feeling the squeeze. So why should we care about nurses and their problems? Because job stress among them is so severe and widespread that it threatens patient care. This very thoroughly annotated article from 2013 documents a direct relationship between nurse job satisfaction and patient outcomes.

Most medical professionals have contact with a patient for a short amount of time and are focused on one aspect of treatment. Doctors, x-ray techs, therapists, and all the rest busily come and go, but nurses are there all the time, day and night. They face suffering, confrontational family members, uncooperative patients, juggling attention between several patients, making sure medications are administered and lab tests are completed. They deal with puke, blood, urine, crap (both kinds) and more and more often are physically assaulted by the people they are trying to help.

Nurses are the only constant human presence in what is usually a chaotic and frightening patient experience. It’s not nearly enough for a nurse to be technically skilled. They must also be gentle and have a cool head while giving hope to very sick people who are at a low point in their lives and may not be in a frame of mind to show gratitude. How are nurses supposed to do all that when they themselves are depressed and drained?

Unfortunately, not only is there is no Easy Street ahead, things are expected to get more difficult. Politics notwithstanding, no one on any side of the argument rationally believes the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will make life better for healthcare workers. The new reality of “passing a law to find out what’s in it” is that a lot of what used to be done by doctors, such as basic exams and checkups, will now be delegated others, particularly nurses.

My sister in law is also a nurse and works full time traveling all over the country doing nothing but health screenings and wellness checks. I don’t think she has any idea how often she’s detected an early-stage, treatable condition and sent the patient to the doctor in time to save them from some horrible disease. I am certain there are many people who are alive and healthy today because they took her advice; there are probably also a few who are dead because they didn’t. She does her thing, then folds up her kit and jets off to the next stop. Her home life and personal free time is compromised because of the constant travel; the complete strangers she deals with every day may never appreciate what she gives up to help them avoid hurt and misery.

As upset as he is, Phil does not talk of leaving nursing. For the short term he is reaching out to other nurses for ad hoc group therapy. I wish I could be more supportive, but with no personal insight about the medical field or direct knowledge of his specific concerns, I’m of limited usefulness. I am close enough to the situation to understand why nurses do what they do. Even with all the job pressures, there are a lot of bright spots, perhaps the most meaningful is actually making a difference in a patient’s life. The satisfaction of being a key player in relieving suffering and helping someone recover and move on is priceless. Of course nurses have to earn a paycheck like all the rest of us, but believe me, if it was only about money, no one would ever become a nurse. There are a zillion easier ways to earn a living.

Since that late night phone call over a week ago, I’ve had daily conversations with Phil and am happy to report that he is feeling better and his outlook has improved. Through all this his desire to treat the sick was never even vaguely in doubt. We outsiders seldom if ever see the behind the scenes forces that drive nurses’ anguish. It’s not drama and they are not making it up. Their pain is as real as the high ranking google searches suggest.

Phil is the kind of nurse who will call into work on his off days to check up on “his” patients. He is the kind of nurse who will stay after his midnight shift ends because the emergency room sent up a late admission. He is the kind of nurse who, with his own time and money, reads medical books and attends training courses that are not required by his employer. Phil is the kind of nurse who prays to God for the welfare of sick people and those who care for them. I’m not exaggerating any of this to make a point; it all really happened and I’ve personally witnessed it. But here’s the kicker: Phil and my sister in law are not outliers. Nearly all nurses go twice past normal. This behavior is easy to find in a             humanitarian profession where being above average is average.