I am not sure who coined the phrase originally, but a friend of mine says it is on a sign that hangs over the entrance of the pool where his daughter swam during high school. I thought of it again while I was visiting Linda and Richard Rivera in San Francisco, where Linda remains in rehab.
For those who do not remember, Linda has been hospitalized since May of 2009 – nearly 18 months – after suffering a severe E. coli O157:H7 infection. She has suffered Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, a stroke, and the removal of her gall bladder and a portion of her large intestine. She has brain, kidney and liver damage.
She is learning to feed herself again and endures daily physical therapy treatments as she attempts to relearn to walk. The amount of pain she experiences daily at this point must be making Linda fearless.
However, spending time with Linda and Richard makes me want to slightly change the phrase to “pain is fear leaving the body gracefully.” Linda has been through 18 months of hospitalization with encouraging progress and heartbreaking setbacks. She lives daily with the humiliation of a colostomy bag and a catheter to collect her bodily wastes. She is awakened nearly every two hours for vital-sign checks. All of this she tolerates with a smile and a grace that makes you marvel at her amazing resilience.
And then there is her husband, Richard. If ever there was a man who can make others take notice of how they treat their spouses, it is Richard. In 18 months he has seldom left Linda’s side – even to catch a few hours of sleep.
He has been there to catch her vomit, hold her hand and wonder if this may be the day Linda dies. The stress on him is visible, but like Linda he smiles through it all. As the days have stretched into a year and a half, he has resigned himself to a similar future. Not in a way that is depressing, but in a way that looks for small progress as a cause for hope.
Sitting with Linda and Richard for a few hours yesterday, I experienced a mix of awe and sorrow. Awe, at what a person and a couple can endure, and sorrow that more cannot see their struggle with E. coli O157:H7.
What if the owners of farms, food manufacturing companies and retailers could spend time with the Riveras? Would they do more to make our food safer? What about the politicians charged with leading us? If they could see the Riveras, would they actually pass food safety laws (and fund them)? And what about the regulators charged with inspections and surveillance? Would seeing the Riveras’ struggles confirm how important their jobs really are?
None of us would wish what has happened to Linda and Richard on anyone. However, spending time with them could be a learning experience on the power of pain, and fearlessness and grace.