Thursday, September 18, 2008

Full Circle

I met Mr. Smith in July of 2007. He came to the Preventive Clinic based upon a strong recommendation from a life long friend. Mr. Smith informed me at our first visit that he had come to reduce his risk factors for heart disease. Mr. Smith was full of kindness. He exuded his benevolence at his first Clinic appointment where he started our meeting with kind words for the patient who had referred him to me. Over the past year, Mr. Smith and I have been meeting to optimize his health and reduce his risk for heart disease. During this time, I have come to have a deeper connection with Mr. Smith and have learned more about his life and his kindness. Perhaps this trait, his kindness, will and/or ultimately added just as much quantity and quality to his life as reducing his heart risk factors.

In the book Meaning & Medicine (Bantam Books, 1991) Dr. Larry Dossey states, “Altruism behaves like a miracle drug, and a strange one at that. It has beneficial effects on the person doing the helping-the helper’s high; it benefits the person to whom the help is directed; and it can stimulate healthy responses in persons at a distance who may view it only obliquely.”

Kindness enhances us psychologically as well as physiologically. How is this? Our body manufactures chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring morphine-like substances that create a feeling of bliss within us. Not only do they provide us with a “feel good experience” but, the endorphins also reduce pain messages being delivered to the brain.

When you choose to become a kinder person, you are not only improving the well being and health of yourself but of those you come into contact with, too. Your kindness has a ripple effect. It has the magical ability of causing even those who have witnessed the act to spontaneously feel good.

Authors Allan Luks and Peggy Payne mention some of the benefits of “doing good” in their book The Healing Power of Doing Good (Fawcett Columbine, 1991). These include a more optimistic and happier outlook on life, sense of exhilaration and euphoria, increase in energy, feeling of being healthy, decreased feelings of loneliness, depression and helplessness, sense of connectedness with others, greater sense of calmness and relaxation, increased longevity, stronger immune system, reduction in pain, reduction of excessive stomach acid, reduction of high blood pressure, and improved circulation to name a few.

It was this past winter during one of our meetings that Mr. Smith was speaking of places in Liberty, Missouri. I told him I was familiar with Liberty and that I visit my grandmother in an assisted living facility there. I was certain he wasn’t aware of this facility as it is a small facility and not well known. I was wrong. Mr. Smith informed me both his parents had lived in that facility and he and his wife visit a few people there on a monthly basis. He immediately added my grandmother’s name to the visit list. What a wonderful act of kindness.

As you see, my grandmother lives for visitors, mail, and outside food. She is 91 years old and quite forgetful. So on my next visit to see grandmother, I placed a note on her table reminding her the Smiths who were friends of mine might be stopping by. Soon, my mother, sees the note. “The Smith’s? That’s Mrs. Smith’s son, the lady who I took piano lessons from. She was a real nice lady.” My mother has fond memories of her piano recitals too. She did a duet with another one of Ms. Smith’s students at a recital. They never practiced together until the day of the recital. Ms. Smith had just played the different part of the duet during their piano lesson and come recital day the two girls who hadn’t met became connected and created a fond memory together. Making this much more than a solo event.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to see Mr. Smith again. He had lost 10 pounds, changed his eating habits, prevented diabetes and subsequently significantly reduced his heart disease risk. Briefly I had mentioned his mother was a piano teacher. His eyes widened and said, “Yes, she was.” I told him my mother’s name and that she had taken lessons from his mother. He went on to inform me that he had visited my grandmother the previous month.

Mr. Smith has made positive lifestyle changes and his physiological risk factors are now minimized. Just as importantly as living a “heart healthy” lifestyle, he continues to deliver random acts of kindness which as we have come to know enhances us both physiologically and psychologically as well. One would only predict his life will continue to be enriched.

It’s interesting that the beneficial effect of helping others holds the power to not only affect our own health, but the health of our entire tension filled society. To better ourselves and our community, not only should we exercise, eat healthy, have our risk factors assessed; but, we should all strive to deliver acts of kindness daily. We meet a lot of people and come across many connections daily. One never knows how our acts of kindness will positively affect others….perhaps for generations to come. With Mr. Smith, this has come Full Circle and it started in the 1950s with his mother teaching my mother piano.