A Speech About Compost

(I gave this speech at the annual medical staff dinner last night when asked to “say a few words” (well, it ended up being more than a *few* words) after being selected as one of two “Physicians of Excellence” for 2010 at St. Joseph Hospital, Bellingham)

It was quite unexpected to get a call from Jim Hopper two months ago asking me if I was planning to attend tonight’s dinner.   The usual answer to that question would be  “uh, no…that’s my barn cleaning time…” , but he told me it would be a good idea for me to show up.   So, I’m quite humbled that the medical staff leadership would acknowledge a doctor who tries hard to fly under the radar by attending as few dinner meetings as possible due to farm and family obligations…

Dan and I arrived in Whatcom County  25 years ago; at that time I was a pregnant family doc having trained at Group Health Cooperative, and left behind one of the most diverse and wonderful practices in the Rainier Valley in Seattle.  We had decided we didn’t want to raise our family in the city, so we moved to a farm north of Bellingham, only a few miles from his parents and back to a part of the state where my grandparents had grown up.  I began practice by filling in as a locums for whoever would have me, and it was no time at all that I had more jobs than I knew what to do with.  I filled in at Intalco doing worker physicals, was a supervisor of the nurse practitioners at Planned Parenthood for several years, was the first doctor at the Interfaith Clinic, and soon was managing detox for Whatcom County at Olympic Treatment Center.  I also started seeing children who needed an evaluation for sexual abuse, ending up seeing over 1000 children over 10 years, and testifying in over 100 trials in a 5 county region.

The chemical dependency work moved to the Recovery Center at St. Joseph Hospital in 1988, and I’ve continued to do medical detox as well as my work at the Student Health Center at WWU for over 20 years.

I am not as skilled a diagnostician as many of you.  I’m not as good at surgical procedures, nor am I a wiz at administration.  What I am good at is making compost, which is really what I’ve done when I’ve taken care of thousands of chemical dependency inpatients over the last twenty years.

As a farmer, I spend over an hour a day cleaning my barn, and wheel heavy loads of organic material to a large pile in our barnyard which composts year round.  Piling up all that messy stuff that is no longer needed is crucial to the process: it heats up quickly to the point of steaming, and within months, it becomes rich fertilizer, ready to help the fields to grow grass, or the garden to produce vegetables, or the fragrant blooms in the flower beds.  It becomes something far greater and more productive than what it was to begin with.  That’s what intensively managed detox and treatment of addictions is like.

As clinicians, we help our patients “clean up” the parts of their lives they really don’t need, that they can’t manage any longer, that are causing problems with their health, their families and jobs, and most of all, their relationship with their Creator.  There isn’t a soul walking this earth who doesn’t struggle in some way with things that take over our lives, whether it is work,  computer use, food, gambling, you name it.  For the chemically dependent, it comes in the form of smoke, a powder, a bottle, a syringe or a pill.  There is nothing that has proven more effective than “piling up together” learning what it takes to walk the road to health and healing, “heating up”, so to speak, in an organic process of transformation that is, for lack of any better description, primarily a spiritual treatment process.  When a support group becomes a crucible for the “refiner’s fire”,  it does its best work melting people down to get rid of the impurities before they can be built back up again, stronger than ever.  They become compost, productive, ready to grow others.

This work with a spectrum of individuals of all races, professional and blue collar, rich and homeless,  coming from all over the state for help,  has been transforming for me.  I have worked with incredibly gifted nursing and counseling staff, some recovering themselves, who have dedicated their careers to this work. Over twenty years, I’ve been on call for detox 24/7 for  90% of those days, nights, holidays and weekends, and I thank Dr. Bob Watson and Dr. Tim Buckley for covering for me every once in awhile so I can turn off my pager.  I thank my husband, Dan Gibson, and our three children for letting me commit to this work.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25: 40–‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

We must not turn away from those who are our most vulnerable, who clearly need our help the most.   I certainly could not over the past twenty years.

Thank you for acknowledging that.