Dr. Charity Dean lived in our neighborhood before she became famous, and I was looking forward to hearing her speak this week as part of the annual “Lead Where You Stand” conference at Westmont College. I was familiar with her amazing career and legendary grit but, until Wednesday, had never heard about a personal challenge she faced.
Born and raised in a low-income family in rural Oregon, at age 7 she felt a call to become a physician and tropical disease specialist. After earning her medical degrees, she became a resident at Cottage Hospital here in Santa Barbara. She was brilliant at analyzing data. But she also received invaluable training from Dr. Stephen Hosea who taught her the importance of looking beyond the data and test results to see each patient as a unique person. He also emphasized the importance of physically touching them before making a diagnosis, encouraging her to trust her “sixth sense” to discover what was going on; “I sense and feel things,” she told us.
She became the Public Health Officer for Santa Barbara County, which had traditionally been a largely bureaucratic position. But she didn’t stay in her office or wait for patients to be brought to her. Instead, she went out to see them wherever they were — homeless shelters, farm worker sites, parks, anywhere. She observed them, listened to their stories, always using touch as part of her interactions. She soon gained a reputation as a fearless and formidable public servant who wasn’t afraid of upsetting other officials in serving the public good.
In the summer of 2019, her training and “sixth sense” told her COVID was coming. She began a relentless struggle to alert and prepare others. By April 2020, she was Co-chair of the California COVID-19 testing task force in Sacramento and serving on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She was featured on ABC News and 60 Minutes and is a central figure in Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.
It was fascinating to hear an account of her professional ascent. But I was impressed in another way when she talked about a personal issue.
Apparently, alcohol had been problematic for her. She did not drink daily, but when she did, she had a hard time stopping. She went to Oregon to visit her mother and asked about the family history. She was told alcoholism had been pervasive, which she hadn’t know. She returned home and decided she needed to go to an AA meeting.
When she walked in, she was surprised to see someone who knew her — one of her homeless patients.
“Hello, Dr. Dean,” he said.
She became a regular. A year later she received a pin marking her first “birthday” of sobriety. As she came forward to receive it, the man who followed her was receiving his ten-year pin – another former homeless patient who was living with HIV and had become a friend and supporter.
As a physician, she said it was humbling to go to that first meeting. But she discovered everyone in the group had something to teach her about life.
This brought to mind a story from my time at Hospice of Santa Barbara.
HSB is a rare form of hospice – one which does not provide direct medical services, but instead offers psychological, social, and spiritual help to anyone facing a life-threatening illness or grieving the death of a loved one. Thanks to a $40 million bequest we received and community support, we were able to have a staff of 30 skilled and compassionate professionals. Part of HSB’s charter is that all our services are free, with no reliance on government or insurance funding. When I was there (2008-2013), we were serving hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds.
One staff member told me the following story.
A wealthy woman had come for grief counseling. When the first session was completed, she took out her checkbook and asked how much the fee was. The therapist told her HSB did not accept payment; if she wished she could make a donation when her therapy was completed. She was flustered and uncomfortable at the thought of not being able to pay for the services. But she kept coming to her appointments.
Our staff knew that, for many people, being in a group of others who had suffered a similar loss can be helpful. Our therapist told this client that she had gotten to a point where being part of such a group would be a good next step. The woman was very resistant — she didn’t think she’d have much in common with a group of ordinary people.
But she agreed to try it. Soon she became a dedicated member.
When she completed her time with us, she told the therapist that she had never realized how much she had in common with other people. Sharing this difficult journey with others, she said, was one of the best experiences of her life.
We seem wired to create and maintain identities for ourselves that can make us think some people are “better’ than others. But in my experience, beneath the facades, we are all human beings trying to find our way in life. On that journey, humility, friendship, and community are priceless gifts.