4th Annual Sower’s Seed Lecture: Dr. Susan Widmayer ’68

Dr. Susan Widmayer is Executive Director of Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

October 2, 2008

Thank you for coming this evening.  I hope that I can find just one thing to say in the next half hour that may help you as you find your way over the next few, but critical, years in your lives.

Even though I graduated from Trinity over 40 years ago (I know that’s longer than some of your parents have been alive!), there are many things that we experienced then that are similar to what you are experiencing.  We were in a devastating and very unpopular war; we had lost faith in our government; we had witnessed terrorism in the assassinations of three of our country’s greatest leaders.

You history majors are not surprised that these cycles continue, I’m sure, but the for the rest of us, we wonder why we couldn’t do better and learn more to make this world safer for our children in these 40 years.

What I have learned, and what I want to share with you tonight, is that it really is all about the “Sower’s Seed.”  What I believe is that the world continues to make the same mistakes over and over again because  individuals fail to recognize their personal responsibility to make a difference.

It doesn’t matter WHAT we do, though each of us may have a certain, very specific job to do.  Most of us don’t even know what that job will be for many years, sometimes even years after we graduate from college.  It doesn’t matter.  You can work in a bank or in a hospital or on a ship…wherever, doing whatever you are happy doing.  The only thing that really matters is HOW you do whatever you do.

When I went to Trinity I really was a most unhappy person.  I didn’t feel smart or attractive or very worthwhile.  I studied a lot, but I was never the best or, even, very good, though I enjoyed my classes and my classmates, especially Sr. Seton Cunneen, whom I believe you all know and admire.

There was one sister at Trinity, a Spanish Professor, Sr. Francis, who is now Sr. Ann Gormley, who always had the “night shift.”  Her job was to be downstairs to make sure that all of us had returned to campus by 8 or 11 or whatever time we had to be back. I would stop in to see Sr. Francis from time to time on my way back from the Library.  All Sr. Francis knew about me was that I was a horrible student in one of her Spanish classes!  Regardless, Sr. Francis would stop whatever she was doing, night after night, greet and talk to me.  These weren’t weighty, important conversations, but they meant so much to me.  Sr. Francis was sowing the seed…not by teaching Spanish, not by monitoring people coming and going, not even by being a religious person.  Sr. Francis did her job, but also “sowed the seed” by treating me with kindness and respect each and every time we spoke.  She was “there for me” when I needed someone just to be present for me those evenings.

It has been rather amazing to me, how few people we meet in our lives make themselves really available to others and I often, through the years, have thought of Trinity and Sr. Francis and of some of the other sisters and lay faculty, too, who really sowed the seed in me which has helped define the philosophy of my life.

Part of the reason I was a most unhappy person in college was that I had lost two brothers who died in infancy and then had a much younger sister who was also born prematurely and spent much time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  She was a precious, very good child, who was always trying to please everyone.  Unfortunately, she failed kindergarten!  So she repeated kindergarten and then my parents sent her to another school for first grade and she was failing first grade!  She was also sick constantly.  If she got the slightest little cold, she would get a bad infection or pneumonia, so she missed a lot of school.  My parents, after having lost two other children, were frantic.  One day, in May, when my little sister found out that she was failing First Grade, she was so depressed that she came home and destroyed almost everything in her room.  My parents didn’t know what to do or where to go.  The pediatrician couldn’t help.  The school and teacher were no help.

One day, a friend called and told my mother of a Clinic at Georgetown University that evaluated children who had been in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  My parents took my little sister to this clinic for an evaluation.  The psychologist there did two things: 1. he identified the fact that my sister wasn’t seeing well (and it was confirmed that she was legally blind in one eye and needed glasses to see with the other!); and 2. he told my parents that this little girl might be failing first grade, but that Georgetown University would be ready to take her when she was old enough as she was actually very bright according to all the tests they had given her.

That psychologist changed my sister’s life and the lives of my entire family.  He sowed a seed of being really there and present to that little girl and to her parents.  From the day that my mother told me what had happened, I wanted to do for other children and families what that man had done for my family and for me.

My sister, incidentally, graduated from college, became a television personality and producer, married a physician, has two grown sons, was mayor of her city, and is now an investigative reporter for the local newspaper.  I don’t know what would have happened to her if that psychologist hadn’t been there for her that day. He “sowed the seed” of kindness and respect while he did his job, helping this Neonatal Intensive Care Unit “graduate.”

My route into psychology was rather convoluted, but about ten years after graduating from Trinity, I graduated from the University of Miami, and practiced pediatric psychology at the Medical School working in a clinic which did follow-up evaluations of children who had been discharged from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, surprisingly enough!  I loved the work and participated in a great deal of research related to these babies.  During the late 1970s and early 1980s we began to see other children, born without perinatal complications and prematurity, who were falling ill and dying, most at around 18 months, all before the age of three.  We had no idea what was happening and, in some cases,  when their children died, parents were even accused of child abuse and jailed!  This was pediatric AIDS which had reached epidemic proportions in south Florida.

While I was very happy working, really being consumed with the work, at the University, several incidents made a significant impact on me while I was there.  These experiences changed my perspective and helped me to recognize what my job really was.

One night, leaving the Medical School about 7:30 at night, I saw a woman and her baby waiting at the bus stop.  I had seen that mother and her baby first thing that morning and knew she came from Homestead, at least a two hour bus ride from Miami.  This woman was obviously very poor and I remember that she wore “flip flops,” one of which was held on her foot with masking tape.  This woman stood at the bus stop, holding her 3 month old baby, whom we had seen almost12 hours before. There was no place for her to sit and it was dark. We had given her no formula or diapers or any material help at all.  We reassured her that her baby was doing well and gave her an appointment for three months later.  I realized I had not really “been there” for that woman.  I didn’t know if she had any lunch or where she had waited all day long until the bus would take her on her two hour ride to Homestead.  I had done the “work,” but I had not done my job for this woman or for her baby.

I went to my boss in the Pediatrics department to ask if we could provide formula, diapers, and some transportation money to some of the poorer women but was told that there were no funds available, plus the University didn’t want to start this as the “demands would never end as there were so many poor people seen in the clinics.” He was correct, but I could never seen another poor parent or child again without feeling that I was failing them.

A second incident that made a profound impression on me was during a home visit when a little boy, about 3 years old, proudly showed me his “Matchbox Car” box from Santa.  I was very excited with him and asked if he could show me the cars inside.  He looked at me and said “Next Christmas, Santa is going to bring me a car to put inside.”  The poverty in which so many of these children and their families lived was really overwhelming.  I began to realize that there had to be something that could be done to improve the quality of life of our children and their families….something so small as a matchbox car couldn’t be that much of an obstacle to overcome.

A third incident that made a significant impact was a woman who had come from Florida City with her son, who was 6 months old, who did not react to noise or light, and who had clear signs of cerebral palsy and of a possible genetic anomaly.  The neonatalogist/pediatrician with whom I worked and I met with the mother and expressed our serious concerns about the future of this baby.  We told the mother that we did not believe that the baby would ever learn to walk or to develop like her other children and that there was really very little that could be done for him.  The mother was incredulous and, after asking if her son would attend school with the other children, to which we said “no,” she stood and said you “damn doctors don’t know nothing.  You don’t know my baby, you don’t know me, and you don’t know my family.”  She left the clinic and didn’t keep any other appointments for her baby.  About 3 years later I walked into the waiting room of the clinic.  It was very large and about 20 mothers and children were there, but a woman was staring at me so I stopped and went to her.  She asked if I remembered her and I told her that she looked familiar but that I couldn’t place her.  She said “Just a minute. Eddie, come over here, please,” and a little boy came right over.  The mother said “Say hello to the doctor” and the little boy, who was very beautiful, held out his hand to shake mine and said “How do you do, doctor?”  This was the same little boy who we never thought would walk or see or hear or talk.  I spent a long time with his mother who told me that everyone in the family worked with this little boy, taking him everywhere, playing and talking and doing everything with him.  I truly understood the meaning of “early intervention” that day and realized that every single child deserves to have that level of support and training.

Unfortunately, once again, the University was not in a position to make the changes needed to provide the kind of intervention that these thousands of children needed.

A couple of years later, a large hospital system in Ft. Lauderdale asked me to establish a clinic like the one at the University for the infants discharged from the Neonatal Intensive Care Units in their county.  I was very reluctant to leave the University and, frankly, to give up the academic life which I loved so much, but I saw this as an opportunity to create a clinic to follow the children and to make sure that the families received the support they needed to care for their children.

We served almost 11,000 children at the Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center last year, our 25th year of existence. We have a $13 million budget and a staff of 175 physicians, nurses, therapists, social workers and psychologists!

The most important aspect of our work and the single behavior that I try to make sure that each and every member of the staff demonstrates is  respect and kindness and willingness to “be there” for each and every person who walks through the doors.

I think the best story I ever heard about the Center…and which exemplifies what Trinity and Sr. Francis sowed in me…..was the day a woman came to the Center with her sick child. She had been terribly beaten with bruises and lacerations all over her face, even though she wore dark glasses.  The staff took care of the baby…we provide diapers and formula and medicines…whatever she needed and made sure she had a taxi ride home.  A few days later I received a letter in which the woman thanked the staff for their kindness to her when she had received nothing but contempt from so many people the days and weeks before she brought her child to the Center.  She said no one had even smiled at her for days before she came to CDTC with her baby.  She wrote that the kindness changed her so much that on that same night, one of her children was misbehaving and she pulled out the belt to hit him.  She said that she realized that maybe he needed some kindness, too, like that she had received from the people at the Center that day so instead of hitting him with the belt, she hugged him.  She said how different and how good he had tried to be from then on.

For me, the “Sower’s Seed” that Trinity gave to me and which has informed my life is the recognition that each and every person with whom we come into contact, child or grandparent, developmentally delayed or a professor, sick or well, deserves our kindness and our respect.  It doesn’t matter if you are the best race track driver, or model, or mother, or lawyer, or any other occupation.  What I learned at Trinity was that our essential responsibility is to be present to others, to show every human being the kindness and the respect that they deserve.