“So I saw that there was nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is why we are here! No one will bring us back from death to enjoy life after we die.” Ecclesiastes 3:22
I’ve made a lot of choices in my life but none better than when I asked my wife Deon to marry me. When I met her she was beautiful, confident woman with an unusual name and an unusual philosophy that “old is good”. I thought she liked old people because that was her specialty as she completed her medical studies at the University of Chicago. Turns out it’s a lot deeper than that. In fact, the reason she became a geriatrician is a story that would please Solomon. You always hear people talk about finding your passion in your life’s work – and that’s exactly what she did on a late night on a deserted Missouri road.
That road was the path between a summer job and her parents home during her sophomore year at college. Up until that night, Deon was a French Major who hadn't quite figured out what to do with her studies -- until she took this job at a nursing home. It was the toughest job she ever had --physically, emotionally and spiritually. She describes herself as a young “naïve” girl and not really prepared for everything she encountered. One night stands out in particular. She was taking care of a woman who was near death and without any family or friends for support. Late into the night, she died. That intimate encounter was a shock to a 19-year-old and the first time she was face to face with the emotional questions about life and death. Then, as she drove home on a dark, foggy road in the country – she felt God speak to her and tell her this is what you are supposed to be doing. You need to take care of the elderly and minister to people who don’t have anyone to speak for them.
Back at school, Deon changed her major to Biology and from then on, she still was not exactly sure of her path of study – but she knew it was going to involve taking care of the elderly. Eventually, she did attend Medical School and now works as geriatrician at the University of Kansas Hospitals. To this day, she feels like medicine is not her true calling but rather her real joy comes from the relationships she has with her patients. “I just love the people I take care of,” she says. “I feel God is the reason I l love my work. It’s not like I wanted to go into medicine or wanted to be a biology major – those were just steps along the way to fulfill what he’s called me to do.”
Over the years, Deon has built a specialty in end-of-life care and she traces it back to that quiet moment she had talking to God. She feels very comfortable talking with patients and family members about the realities of death. And, much of her time now is devoted to teaching medical students how to deal with end-of-life issues. But, for her, caring for her patients is the reason she’s happy in her work. “Every day I pray, and I’m trying to do what God sets before me,” she says. “When people are old and frail and particularly at the end-of-life, it’s just natural to talk about your faith. That’s made it easier, and given me opportunities to pray and talk about God. When people have anxieties, I can talk to them and explain about the peace that passes all understanding.”
Deon sees old people a lot differently than most people. At various times a year, she sees a more general group of patients in the hospital. That’s when she sees lots of younger people who have abused their bodies with drugs and alcohol and who are wasting away the gift of life through bad choices. Old people, on the other hand, are old because they’ve taken care of themselves and, in general, have more wisdom and respect for life. That’s why “old is good”, and the older the better. One way our world is upside down these days because we have lost our respect for the aged. We listen to the wisdom of celebrities but neglect the truly wise among us – people who have lived through all the ups and downs of life and see its true meaning.