Remembering Harry Peel

Harry Peel was a drummer. He played what John Kilzer sometimes referred to as a ”big bongo.” I loved to listen to his playing, but I was also one of his doctors.

I have to be honest: Harry was a terrible patient. He would nod along in agreement whenever I told him he needed to improve his lifestyle to better-manage his diabetes and his heart disease, but I knew he was probably not going to do it. He marched to his own beat. After all, he was a drummer.

When John Kilzer started his music-based recovery ministry known as The Way, Harry immediately signed on as the drummer. John called the band “The Harry Peel Orchestra.” It was sort of a joke, but not really.

John and Harry played together for over 30 years. They were like brothers, which was both good and bad. One time when I knew they were not getting along very well, I was talking to Harry about a gig John had played. The  people had not paid John what I thought was reasonable to pay him. Harry indignantly said, “Don’t those people know he is JOHN KILZER?” Harry was true to John even when they were going through a rocky patch.

Because of his diabetes, Harry’s foot had very poor circulation. We tried everything we could to improve the blood flow, including multiple surgeries. Those helped for a while, but then we had to amputate his foot. What could be worse for a drummer?

I would see Harry in the clinic. I could tell he was down but he kept going. The beat kept going.

Then one day he was back playing at the Way. The big bongo was back. It was exciting, and I could tell John was pleased.

Then all too soon Harry didn’t show up for a gig at the Blue Monkey. Who would now keep the rhythm?

Harry died sitting in his chair.

Harry Peel played the drums for almost every successful musician that has played in Memphis over the last 30 years. People didn’t always know his name but they could feel his beat. Harry was a drummer.

I will always remember him playing with John Kilzer. The Way’s band will always be the Harry Peel Orchestra for me. He was never the guy out front, but he proved you can make a difference in life by being the guy who keeps everyone else on track by keeping the beat.

Thank you, Harry, for teaching us that lesson.


A Lesson In Empathy from a St. Jude Family

“You’ve got to help me, Doc. My sinuses are killing me.”

The person speaking was a big, burly, and gruff man in his early forties. He wasn’t the type of guy you’d expect to go to the doctor for sinus trouble, much less be so insistent on me making him better. There was something about him that didn’t particularly agree with me, and the same was true of his wife who sat in the corner. She told me more than I wanted to know about her husband’s runny nose.

I then looked closer at the chart and realized I was talking to a St. Jude family. St. Jude’s is a research hospital in Memphis that treats children from all over the world with various forms of childhood cancer. This past weekend, runners from all over the world descended on Memphis to run in the annual St. Jude Memphis Marathon in support of the lifesaving work done at the hospital. My friend and colleague Antony Sheehan was one of them.

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony's completion medal

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony’s completion medal

Often, the children must stay in Memphis for up to two years while being treated, which means the parents are also in Memphis, sometimes unable to work either because they are from another country and do not have a work permit or because their child requires constant attention. In these cases, the Church Health Center takes care of the families of the sick child while they are in town. We don’t charge them for the visit.

I looked up from the clipboard. “So, why is your child at St. Jude?” I asked quietly.

There was a brief pause. Then the wife said, “He has a brain tumor and they just started chemotherapy again yesterday.”

“How long have you been in Memphis?”

“We came 10 months ago and he has been in the hospital almost the whole time.”

I wondered how hard that must be for anyone to endure. Granted, here at the Church Health Center we’re constantly confronted with the difficulties of life. We exist because the world is imperfect.

We’re here for traditionally-underserved patients like Bethany whose mental health struggles haven’t been properly addressed by their healthcare providers in the past. We’re here for patients who have no choice but to leave their native countries in search of a better life. We’re here for patients like Ollie who have been bruised and battered by the currents of life but still give at their own expense.

I’m used to seeing people in pain, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to watch my own child suffer. Listening and empathizing made me more forgiving of my patient’s harried attitude. The rest of their visit was much more congenial and in some unclear way, they no longer had to carry the weight of the world all by themselves.

I believe that we were all put on this Earth to help each other in some way. Sometimes, simply listening and realizing that everyone we encounter is dealing with pain beyond our own experience is enough to make this world a better place.

It is that empathy that makes us more Christ-like.

Walking the Walk: Why the Church Health Center Is Committed to Staff Health

Every day at the Church Health Center, we help people experience the life well-lived.

For some, that means receiving care at our clinic. For others, that means working with a personal trainer on our Sports Court to get the best out of their workout. For our youngest visitors, it means learning in Child Life how to establish healthy habits.

It is important that we not only tell people what they should do but show them that we are trying to do the same thing: live healthy lives. Our staff has many of the same health challenges as our patients. In order to help our staff along the way, a number of years ago we began a staff health program. Over the years we have worked hard to make it both enticing for our staff to participate and to present an effective program.

Of course, that is all easier said than done.

Walking the Walk

We have made a number of tweaks to the program and are still looking for the right process. We’re making strides because we have 84% of our employees currently participating. That compares to many companies that believe they are doing well if 25% participate in their staff health program.

Although living a healthy life is its own reward, the truth is that incentives help sweeten the pot. The Church Health Center’s staff health program includes incentives that strike the best balance of personal motivation, financial rewards, and coaches who can help show the way. I am a believer that you need all three. The program needs to be flexible enough for everyone’s needs.

This past spring, our staff was challenged to drink eight glasses of water a day. Maybe the Communications department had a little too much fun with this challenge.

This past spring, our staff was challenged to drink eight glasses of water a day. Maybe the Communications department had a little too much fun with this challenge.

Our program works like this. People set goals for themselves at the beginning of the year. We use an electronic log that allows staff to record their exercise, their eating habits, and their spiritual care. Along the way, we measure their exercise capacity, their flexibility, and a number of blood components such as cholesterol and blood sugar. People earn points as they achieve their goals and log their activity.

Based on a 500 point scale, people earn either a hundred dollars or a day off from work for every hundred points they achieve.

It is so important for us to be able to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I took this seriously myself a year or so ago and lost almost 25 pounds. Happily, I have been able to keep the weight off while also doing routine exercise. A number of our employees have far more impressive results than that. Major weight loss and lifestyle changes have been logged and continue to evolve.

Our goal is to make living a healthy life the norm for anyone who is a part of the Church Health Center. To do so requires daily devotion to the task. It cannot be a fad and it cannot be done for the rewards. At the end of the day, true results are motivated by the desire to nurture the bodies God has given us. This must be the overriding thought when you are having a bad day and the chocolate cake is sitting right in front of you or you just want to blow off taking a walk. None of us are immune to falling into the pit or what John Bunyan in Pilgrims Progress called “the slough of despair.”

It is why we also set out free fruit bowls around the Center for when people need a snack. We encourage everyone to take advantage of their free membership to the Wellness Center if they do not have an easy place to exercise. And our employee health staff is just a phone call away to help you recommit to your goals. It is not easy, but it is doable.

Every year, we look at our aggregate numbers to see how we are doing. All in all, we are making progress. I still have a goal of 100% participation but I am told that is not reasonable, although I am not sure why. I do, however, believe we can commit to offering to our staff the chance to adopt healthy behaviors whenever someone is ready to make the change. I strongly believe that this is one of the best ways to find our path toward God. It will never be that we always feel connected to God, but we can always be moving toward God. Sometimes that might mean we are just literally walking on the path when our minds are distracted but our bodies and our spirits are one and if either is aimed in the right direction, it is of God.

Putting the “Care” Back in End-of-Life Healthcare

There was a recent segment on the PBS news that featured the daughter of my good friend and former Church Health Center board chair, Dr. Kenneth Robinson. His daughter, Dr. Maisha Robinson, is a physician at UCLA who is working with African-American clergy in Los Angeles to encourage their congregations to embrace the idea of palliative care at the end of life.

It is startling that only 8% of all African-Americans have a living will or are even open to discuss a plan that centers around how they will die. This compares to 45% of Caucasians. It is startling, but it’s also problematic.

The problem stems from our country’s poor track record of providing quality medical care to African-Americans. Historically, blacks were not offered the best medical care possible. The residual of “experiments” like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is still prominent in many minds. The consequence is that many African-Americans want the doctor to “do all they can” to prolong life, no matter the consequences.

This desire for the “best” medical care, unfortunately, means that we are prolonging the dying process for many African-Americans and, ironically, not offering a nurturing experience in a patient’s last days. In fact, we’re doing just the opposite. By dying in a hospital, perhaps tethered to a ventilator, patients are kept from being nurtured by the people who love them most. Rather than receive care that eases suffering, patients often continue down a long road of treatments in a fruitless quest to provide a cure to a disease that has dictated that the end is inevitable. The result is that everyone can say “we did all we could.”

In my mind, this declaration is an illusion. There was never anything we could do to save the person’s life and provide true quality of life. We kept the person’s heart beating, but the essence of the person who was loved had long since died.

Putting the Care Back in End-of-Life Healthcare

The younger Dr. Robinson is working with pastors in LA to get them to preach that death is not the enemy, that offering comfort care at the need of life is a better way to help people die.

I have learned over the years that the easiest thing for the doctor to do is do “more.”

There is always one more thing that we can try.

There’s always one more drug we can add.

We can always call one more consultant.

But what is never asked is this: To what end? A person who is 85 years old with metastatic cancer is unlikely to live much longer no matter what the situation. Do we really want Grandmother to die around people she doesn’t know, in a place where they never turn the lights off, surrounded by people who do not know her well enough to love her?

I am proud of Maisha for taking on this daunting task. Unfortunately, as a white male doctor, it is hard for me to effectively champion this cause and have people listen. It is people who look like me who made Maisha’s work necessary. But I do believe that people of faith can play a large role in helping her work and others like her succeed. While I am certain that it is not possible to die with dignity – death takes away your dignity – I believe that we can die well. It is the role of the Church to help people die in a way where God’s will that we have lived with joy can be fully realized.


An Unexpected Lesson in Generosity

As a not-for-profit organization, the Church Health Center has relied on the support of our community from Day One. It’s simple, but it’s true: we cannot do what we do without relying on charitable contributions. Read: we need money to keep our doors open. Whether those gifts come from the young or the old, they all make a difference.

But money is more than just cash. Behind every dollar we receive is a story and an opportunity to learn about the nature of generosity. This past Christmas, I met a little boy who elected to give the Church Health Center the money he otherwise would have received from his grandmother. This reminded me that generosity and kindness are not limited to a certain age group.

Last Christmas, Noel told his grandmother that instead of presents, he wanted her to give the money that she would have spent on him to someone who could really need it. He selected the Church Health Center as the recipient of his gift. I am floored by the selflessness of this young man and thank him for helping us make Memphis healthier.

Last Christmas, Noel told his grandmother that instead of presents, he wanted her to give the money that she would have spent on him to someone who could really need it. He selected the Church Health Center as the recipient of his gift. I am floored by the selflessness of this young man and thank him for helping us make Memphis healthier.

Early in our ministry’s history, I learned a fundamental lesson about generosity that I’ve carried with me ever since.

It was late in the day on December 23. I was our only doctor on duty that day, but since everyone wanted to be well for Christmas, the waiting room was bursting at the seams. I had already seen over 40 patients that day when our front desk receptionist, Kim, called me with an urgent request. She told me that there was a homeless man at the front desk who was insisting on seeing “Scott.”

I asked Kim, “Does he have an appointment?”

“No, I don’t remember him from before, and his name is not in the computer. He just keeps saying he needs to see you.”

This impromptu visit could not have occurred at a worse time, but rather than going to the next patient, I went out to see him. He was standing at the front desk hovering over Kim. If nothing else, I needed to get him away from her, or so I thought. He was wearing old blue jeans and a plaid shirt. He had not shaven in several days. When he saw my white coat he turned to me and said abruptly, “Are you Scott?”

“Yes, sir, I am. How can I help you?”

“Can we go in the back?”

I had no idea what he wanted, but I did not think he was dangerous. I led him into the lab, the only room that didn’t have patients at the time. He told me his name. It meant nothing to me. He then handed me an envelope.

“I hear you do good work. If I ever hear my name associated with you, you will never hear from me again. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

I was bewildered: what was he talking about? He reached to shake hands again and turning to leave said, “Merry Christmas.”

That was it.

When he walked out, the nurse gave me the look of “Don’t you know there are patients waiting?” The whole encounter had taken less than five minutes, so I thought I had time to look at the envelope he handed me.

I found enclosed a personal check for $100,000. At that point, it was almost one-third of the Church Health Center’s budget. I hurried to Kim and asked her if she had learned anything more about our mysterious visitor.

“No, he just wanted to see you, so I treated him like another patient. I was as nice as I knew to be. He seemed like a lot of our homeless guys, so I tried to be a little gentler.”

Of course she did; that was Kim.

That night, I could only think of Kim treating the man like another homeless man. For all she still knew, that was what he was.

The next day, after a few phone calls, I learned that our Christmas visitor was not Howard Hughes, but he had a reputation for eccentricity in Memphis almost the same as the famed aviator. I was also told that he had made other anonymous gifts and he was serious about things staying that way.

Over the next ten years, either he or one of his sons would always show up to drop off the check the week before Christmas. These exchanges were always without fanfare or conversation. One year, I drove to his house with a small present and I tried to tell him about everything happening in our ministry. If he cared, it wasn’t obvious.

Then one Christmas, the check didn’t come. And that was it. I reached out to him in a variety of ways to thank him for his gifts, but he has never responded. I am confident I did not break the trust we had.

But I do know that his unexpected generosity made it crystal clear that every homeless man is to be treated like he is about to hand us a check. Not because of the money, but because of the lesson his generosity taught me. What if Kim had told him that I was too busy to see him? Or if she just told him to take a seat? Or if I had just responded that it was too much to talk to him right then?

Everyone who walks through our front door should be treated as though their value is greater than we could ever imagine. We begin with that assumption, and then from there we do the best we can.

The Joy of Service

The Joy of Service

What really matters?

This is a question that I’ve been asking my entire life, and I strongly believe that contentment has absolutely nothing to do with the things we have or our social stature. We are only going to experience fulfillment by humbling ourselves at the feet of others through service.

I’m reminded of an instance back in 1999 when I was invited by the Aspen Institute to give a short talk about corporate responsibility in New Orleans.

In a quick 30 minutes, I gave a David Letterman-like top ten list of reasons why corporations should be involved with their communities. The audience seemed to respond positively to my comments, which was reassuring.

Afterwards, there was a dinner in the warehouse district of New Orleans in a penthouse condominium belonging to a developer of the district. I was awed by the luxury and the beauty of the condo. It was a beautiful night which allowed people to freely use the very large outdoor patio where a band was playing. Every room was filled with fine art and food.

As I milled around, a steady stream of people came up to remark about my talk. I got a sense of the distinguished group that was present.

A university president.

A former president of a Fortune 500 company.

A former assistant Secretary of State.

A senior healthcare executive.

What struck me, as it had a number of times before, was that these individuals were no different than the people I worked with day in and day out at the Church Health Center. They were neither smarter nor more interesting. For the most part, they did have a lot more money, but that did not make them happy.

Like all of us, they were looking for meaning in their lives and a sense of purpose which could make them happy.

Fortunately for them, they did not have to worry about the bare necessities of life. Food, clothing, and shelter would always be at-hand. They were surrounded by the best of everything.

In the end, though, those things are fleeting and unfulfilling. It was like the hotel where I stayed that time in New Orleans. A travel magazine conspicuously placed on the bedside table listed it as the second best hotel in the world. But as I looked around, all I saw were four walls with a bed and a bathroom.

My experience in New Orleans many years ago reinforced in my mind that my own search for happiness will only be fulfilled through the work I do for others at the Church Health Center. It is in this way that I will better know the love of God, which I feel certain is the only source of contentment and fulfillment.

Meeting Richard Rohr

This last weekend at the Church Health Center was certainly a full one! With our annual community walk Walking as One going on at our Wellness facility and the Westberg Symposium for faith community nurses in full swing at the Peabody Memphis Hotel, the Church Health Center was certainly living out its mission of helping others live their healthiest, most joy-filled lives.

Dr Morris westberg

Named after Granger Westberg who held an unwavering conviction that the church can do more to help people find healing, the Westberg Symposium focuses on helping faith community nurses help others all over the world.

My colleague at the Church Health Center Antony Sheehan was even named an honorary Peabody Duckmaster, if you can believe it.

Antony Sheehan as Honorary Duckmaster

Antony really gets to have all the fun.

I had one more item on my weekend agenda, though, that had nothing to do with ducks. I spent a portion of the weekend in Albuquerque with Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. Some of you might know his writings very well, which include Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, and The Naked Now. I admit I had not read anything of his before the weekend, but I am now a big fan.

Scott Morris and Richard Rohr

Fr. Rohr, a provocative and excellent communicator, has devoted himself to a life of contemplation yet spends a great deal of time teaching others about the contemplative life. He’s carved out his niche in speaking to people in positions of power about the spiritual life; almost everyone at the small event was the CEO of a major company. He begins his seminars with ways to become powerless.

Of all the things he said, his emphasis on the power of being present with others resonated most with me. Achieving full presence requires great effort and focus that cannot be faked; you have to live in the moment. This is an idea I have talked about for years and try hard to practice, but it is so hard. It is easy to always be looking over the person’s shoulder you are talking to for someone more important or more interesting. As humans, we are prone to think of the next thing we want to say or the next thing we want to do. However, only by being fully-present in the moment do you have a chance to know what God has in store.

Fr. Rohr also points out that Christians do not have a lock on knowing what God wants for our lives. He quotes Hindu scriptures that were written 2,500 years before Jesus and shows how what they say sound a lot like what we read in the Bible. We are wrong to think that only our “tribe” has all the answers. In fact, such “tribalism” is exactly why the world is threatening to blow apart today. None of us knows God in a way that is exclusive to our small band of followers. We need to learn from others if we ever want to grow.

My goal was to get him to come to Memphis, but he explained to me that now that he is 72 he no longer travels. But I now have a long list of his writings to read. I am starting with Falling Upward which is what much of his thoughts over the weekend reflected. What was equally good was I made several new friends who are working around the country to make a difference in God’s world just like we are here in Memphis.