Transitions and Remarks

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

JUNE 29, 2018

For Everything, There is a Season

Although I am writing this a week before it will be published, you will see it on my last day at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. This has been the most wonderful job in the world, and I am grateful beyond words to have been here for 39 years. This has been an excruciating decision, but I am confident that the time is right. For everything there is a season...  As some of you know, I am retiring from my role as Manager of Oncology Social Work, but not retiring from the work. I will continue with a half time private practice, mostly with oncology patients and/or their families, will continue to write this blog and and will support our wonderful online BIDMC Cancer Community. Please continue to join me there.

On June 20, the Cancer Center had a reception to mark this transition, and I had the chance to listen to wonderful and embarrassing speeches about myself and make a few remarks. This is an an abbreviated version of those remarks:

My work has been built on two beliefs. Thomas Merton wrote: “For the birds, there is not a time that they tell, but the virgin point between darkness and light, between being and non-being…when creation in its innocence asks permission to be once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.”

The virgin instant, the moment when all things are possible. This is the moment that we must remember our individual version of the old prayer: “Let me be a blessing to someone today.” It is that very moment that must sustain us. Each time we meet a new patient, each time we walk into a room and look into a new pair of frightened eyes, we are recreating and celebrating that moment. It is the dedication to what is coming--probably out of our control and perhaps filled with pain and longing--and our commitment to welcoming and embracing it that set our lives apart.

The second is from Isaiah, a quote that was on my father’s desk and has always been on mine. “Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Then said I: Here am I; send me.”

To quote Tweedledum from Alice in Wonderland: "I'm very brave generally," he went on in a low voice: "only today I happen to have a headache."  Sometimes I have been scared; sometimes I have been unsure what I could offer, and many times, I have been sad. But, like all of us who make this choice about how to spend our lives, with or without a headache, I have always gone.

The rewards and the blessings are abundant. How proud I am of what we have done together: Patient to Patient, Heart to Heart was the first peer support program for cancer patients in the country. Terry Chandler, a patient of Roger Lange’s,  who had leukemia, came to my office one morning and said: “You all do a great job, but you don’t do one important thing. You don’t help us find each other.” She was right. And she and I, first with a stalwart band of 12 volunteers, changed that. Our program has grown and changed over the years and is now mostly the service of our wonderful volunteers on Shapiro 9 and Shapiro 7. Over and over, we hear from our patients something like this: “Your doctors and nurses are terrific, but the volunteers make this place very special. They are the heart.”

Celebration of Life: for 20 years, starting in 1994, the year after my first breast cancer, I, with the help of Jane Matlaw, Norma Elkind, and a few others, organized a day long event for our oncology community. It grew from a hundred people in Sherman auditorium to a thousand under the tent at Harvard Medical School. We had two dozen workshops led by our doctors and staff and community experts; we arranged art, music, breakfast and lunch; published a book of writings; and sometimes offered a champagne toast. It was glorious.

My patients. What can I possibly say that could explain the relationships, the connections, the community, the respect and the affection and sometimes the love that we have shared? You have given me the very best job in the world.

Do you know that when the great herds cross the Serengeti in the migration, they walk in single file? As you stand in that tall grass, you see the endless narrow path, winding to the horizon. And the animals walk single file because, by slowing their pace, their disguise their young, their old, their sick and infirm, from the hungry eyes of the predators. They walk together. This is what you all have taught me: the right way to live. And you have taught me everything else that I need to know:

  1. I remember Bob who had leukemia and spent weeks and weeks in the hospital. One night, he was awakened by a commotion in the hall and realized that a man, who had been his roommate on other admissions, was dying next door. Bob got up and went in and sat down. He held his friend’s hand, and he sat through the night and through the dawn and through the final heartbeat. And then he told me: “Now I will never be afraid again.”
  2. I remember Marilyn who had metastatic breast cancer. She also had a beloved adopted daughter and a long time partner. As she became more ill, they decided to marry, both to honor their love and to be sure that he could raise her girl. On the same day that she made her own funeral arrangements, she chose the band for their wedding. She told me: “My parents were holocaust survivors, and they taught me to dance even when the world is in flames.”
  3. I remember Maureen who liked to say: “They don’t put pockets in coffins.” That still helps me when my miserly WASP genes threaten to take over.
  4. And I remember Karen whose daughters came to meet with me a few months after her death. They told me that, during her final hours, she opened her eyes and spoke one last piece of advice: “When you make chicken soup, right before you serve it, squeeze in a little lemon juice. It will taste better, and you will think of me.” I implore you to squeeze in a little lemon juice and pause for a moment to remember everyone you have loved and lost.

As I always closed my opening talk at Celebration of Life, let me close this final one here:

“When it is over, when it is all over, I want to be able to say: I was the bride married to amazement; I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms.”

L’Chaim, To Life, Choose Life.

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