My Pioneering Role Model Mom

Mom's 91st birthday - you bet with wheels rolling under her

Like a rumbling multistage rocket ripping with purpose to a world beyond, positive role models boost, guide and inspire us to heights not even they could ever imagine. My greatest role model is my dear ol’ mom.

Mom is an only child. I don’t remember ever meeting her parents. They died when I was young. But I sure heard stories of how my mom was influenced by them.

Most significantly, when Mom was 12 growing up in Santa Paula, California, just inland of Santa Barbara, she told her parents she wanted to be a nurse. Her dad had little formal education but a lot of common sense as a successful businessman and lemon rancher. He suggested, “Why not be a doctor? They’re the ones who make the important decisions.”

That alone was a powerful pioneering idea. There were barely any women doctors in the 1930’s. Mom’s dad pushed hard. Mom didn’t like being pushed and resisted. But as soon as her dad backed off, she went forward and graduated medical school in 1949. She then became not only one of the first radiation oncologists but one of the very few first females in that specialty.

I had the fantastic and wonderfully formative fortune over time as a kid to spend quite a few full days with Mom at the hospital to see her in action. I never got close enough to hear what was said between my mom and her patients, but I very definitely remember seeing the mutually comforting, positive and respectful look in both her and her patient’s faces. The look, demeanor and attitude were a dead-on reflection of Mom’s core and focused belief: “Patients need to be treated as people not cases”.

In addition to putting her patients at ease – instantly – she also told them the truth. Early in her career, medical protocol dictated that oncologists tell their patients that the treatment they were receiving was intended to prevent the onset of cancer, not to treat a disease that was actively eating their bodies. Mom was uncomfortable with that practice and instead told her patients the type of disease they had, how it was going to be treated and what outcome to expect. And she did it with grace, confidence and compassion – characteristics she maintained consistently both throughout her career and then as a patient herself subjected to a number of the same diseases she used to treat.

But just as Mom was a pioneer in medicine, she was also a pioneer in travel. When she was in the fourth grade, she decided she wanted to see as much of the world as possible. And she did.

Just the other day, as she and my brother drove back from a 4-day trip to Yosemite National Park – Mom loves Yosemite about the same as she loves the feel of wheels rolling under her – she reminisced about her first trip to China in 1981 only 9 years after President Nixon’s door-opening trip to China. As her plane touched down in what was at the time a very desolate Beijing airport, my already seasoned world traveling mom asked herself, “What am I doing here?” But as soon as that question fired in her head, she answered herself: “This is what you’ve always wanted to do. Just take it as it is. You’ll be fine.” She was much more than fine – and then back again to see the tremendous change in that country a few more times since.

She’s been to Africa, Europe, Russia, India, the Far East, South America, the Arctic and much more. She was one of the first adventure tourists to visit Antarctica and then made a dozen trips back afterwards. Just as the bold seawall inscription reads at the tip of South America in Ushuaia, Argentina “The end of the world, the beginning of everything”, traveling to Mom has always been about enriching ones own life by seeing how others live under the incredibly diverse conditions we share on our richly diverse Earth.

Mom’s pioneering nature and the guts she’s had to step out front where few stepped out before her are all about living life full-on. And, wow, as the next stage of that rocket flying off full of her richly connected moment-to-moment love of life, I sure appreciate it!

Thanks very much and happy 91st birthday, Mom! Love always, Bruce

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