Bridging the Heart Divide
The campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the size of a small town with buildings that are cities within themselves. The Mark O. Hatfield Research Clinic is one such structure. I got lost once in the basement level and felt the same anxiety as when lost in a canyon in the Utah desert (which I have also experienced). The functioning of NIH depends on a complex shuttle system that, in my experience, is always spot on time, that brings patients, researchers, students and others to and from the various buildings in its vast complex. I’ve been a patient since 2009.
Spasmodic Dysphonia or SD, (an ugly name which I hate to utter) is the diagnosis I received several years ago when breaks, hoarseness and a strangled quality in my voice became nearly disabling. It’s a neurological dystonia that has a mysterious genesis and no known cure. My combined curiosity and fighting spirit spurred me to sign up as a research subject in a years-long study of the enigmatic condition. So, I travel regularly to NIH for all manner of medical tests, most of which are MRIs, PET and CAT scans and occasional procedures which require electrode wires to be inserted into my voice box. Yeah, I’m stoic with a relatively high tolerance for discomfort so I make a good lab rat.
I last visited NIH a week ago, and at the end of a grueling day of testing boarded a trusty shuttle along with other suffers of conditions which are sufficiently obscure or intractable to merit ongoing studies. Among the patients were a man with “writer’s cramp” dystonia, and a woman with torticollus, a dystonia that freezes the neck muscles into a painful twisted position. The last man to board the shuttle was delivered in a wheelchair. His bearded face was young, and he looked to be my age or a little younger, but his back was bent in an impossible curve, and his arms and legs were flexed and nearly immobile. He wore a yarmulke and spoke with a thick, Jewish accent. The shuttle was full and the winter day was growing dark. The driver, a rotund black man wearing a Santa cap, took the bent man by one hand and slipped his other hand under the man’s armpit to support his weight as he shuffled shakily to the passenger’s side door. Other shuttles were waiting in line behind us and people were visibly anxious. Those of us aboard the van watched tensely, waiting to spring to the man’s aid if the driver failed to support his full weight. But patiently, the driver helped the man inch his way to the door then braced his frame as he exerted all the force he had to climb into the front seat, huffing and grunting with the strain. The driver gently positioned him in the seat and secured his seat belt while the man panted with exhaustion.
It’s unlike the trusty shuttles at NIH to be late, but we headed out to our various hotel drop-off points a full 10 minutes behind schedule. The driver was silent as he took a circuitous and unfamiliar route to a hotel that was far from the other nearby hotels in Bethesda. He pulled the shuttle as close to the entrance as possible and walked inside to get a wheelchair from the lobby. This was the hotel of the disabled Jewish man. The driver opened the passenger’s side door and, once again, began the arduous process of helping the man’s bent and frozen body out of the shuttle and into the wheelchair. This took another 10 minutes, but I and the other passengers watched silently as both men maintained great dignity through their struggle. Once in the wheelchair a hotel valet took over and started toward the entrance. Then the man in the chair spoke, “Wait, stop please!” and with his rigid hand beckoned the driver back to him. He then reached into his coat and fumblingly took a $20 bill out of his wallet, grasped the driver’s hand and pulled him close. “I know you will want to enjoy Christmas with your family. This is for you. God bless you.” And the two men shared a silent embrace before parting.
Christmas music played on the radio as the driver finished his rounds through the bustling commercial streets of Bethesda. Those of us on the shuttle were quiet but a few wiped tears as we made our way back to our hotels. My eyes were moist, and the tears quivering on my eyelids were like lenses, magnifying and refracting the colored Christmas lights in windows and trailing up light poles. Gratitude, well-being, safety, peace, all the good feelings that should accompany Christmas time were present in that shuttle at that moment.
America does not have a racial divide nor a class divide nor a privilege divide. If there is a divide, it is in the hearts of humans. No measure of protesting nor indignation nor destruction will bridge the heart divide. But simple acts of patience, love, compassion and the appreciation of individual dignity become powerful spans that bring together hearts and hands of all colors and origins. This is Christmas’ universal theme.
by Marjorie Haun 12/21/14