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‘Everyone Needs A Caring Listener’: Gut Doctor Wins Compassion Prize

Dr. John Zawacki (Courtesy of The Schwartz Center)

Dr. John Zawacki grew up on the grounds of Taunton State Hospital, the huge psychiatric hospital now so old the state is in the process of closing it. As a child, he would say good night to the mentally ill patients waiting in the hallway outside his psychiatrist-father’s home office on his way to bed. He recalls:

“When I asked Dad why people needed a psychiatrist, he said: ‘John, everyone needs a caring listener sometime in their lives.” When young John expressed interest in becoming a doctor, his father had him spend the summer in the psychiatric hospital’s back wards, cleaning up incontinent male patients. The point: “There is no job which is beneath you.”

John went on to become a gastroenterologist and a professor of medicine at UMass Medical School, treating patients with tough disorders like Crohn’s, colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. And he must have treated them with extraordinary kindness, because he has just won the annual Schwartz Center Compassionate Caregiver Award. Check out last year’s winner, a hospice worker, here, and here’s an inspiring Schwartz Center video of this year’s five finalists, two nurses and three doctors.

Here are excerpts from Dr. Zawacki’s remarks last night at the Schwartz Center dinner: Continue reading

‘I Try To Share All Of My Heart’: Hospice Staffer Wins Major Prize

Hospice worker and Schwartz Center prizewinner Vilma Barrios with a patient

At its huge annual dinner in Boston last night, the non-profit Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare awarded this year’s top caregiving prize to Vilma Barrios — the first hospice worker and first nursing assistant to receive the $5,000 honor.

Her moving speech is below, as provided by the Schwartz Center. What struck me most is that Vilma, an immigrant from Guatemala, sees her work with dying patients as “very simple” — “I try to share all of my heart with my patients.” But I can imagine few things more complex than opening up to a patient who is guaranteed to die soon. I love the thought of a great banquet hall of 2,000 people all bowing before the power of a heart big and strong enough to do that.

First, though, also from the Center, here’s a letter from the daughter of one of Vilma’s patients, beautifully illustrating the depth of gratitude that many of us feel for special caregivers:

“Our family has never met anyone quite like Vilma. Late in 2007, when she came on the scene, my Dad had already gone through several caregivers. To say that my Dad had a strong personality would be putting it mildly. He had always been one of those no nonsense kind of guys, and even more so as he neared the end of his life when his brain was a bit short-circuited by the drugs he received to cope with the pain.

Vilma had that magic touch with Dad. He would even let her take care of his personal hygiene in the way no one had been allowed to. She earned that right through her patience and her wonderful persistent humor. We all fell in love with Vilma, and she became another sister in our family. Vilma would often come to see Dad on her off hours, just to check on him, even though she knew he had other caregivers there. Even when he ranted at her or complained or yelled, Vilma was patient and full of love and good humor and the fullest measure of compassion. She wanted to be there at the end, and she cried with us as Dad took his last breath. She rode with us to the memorial service and to the cemetery. She was his friend in the truest sense and remains a beloved member of our family.”

And now for Vilma’s speech: Continue reading