Where am I?

Commencement Address

Patricia B. Wolff. M.D.
May 19, 2012

I’d like to thank President Dennis Golden, the Board of Trustees, the Council of Regents, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Alumni, faculty, staff, and administration and most importantly, members of the 2012 graduating class their parents, and other supportive friends. I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today. I understand the hard work that made your success today possible and I congratulate and applaud you.

When you cross this stage today you are better prepared for a life of meaning and service than when you arrived.

What’s that about a life of meaning and service? Service, really? Don’t I deserve to indulge myself and for once be about me and what I want to do and when I want to do it? Well, no. That actually does not result in a fulfilled life. If you want to be happy, in the long run, indulging yourself will never get you there.

You and I are lucky. I am grateful that my soul, randomly, came down the heavenly chute in the United States, not Haiti or some other place where such opportunities do not exist. Living in America has allowed me to get an education, live in a house with clean, running water and sewer, experience preventive and therapeutic medical care, and find meaningful work. It has allowed me to travel, learn about the world, enrich my inner life, my relationships with others and find the work that makes my life fulfilling.  Each of you  has been afforded future opportunities through your education to find meaning. You have useful skills to share and a lifetime to discover the rewards that come from sharing.

23 years ago my family and I went to Haiti with a group from St. Louis. We stayed in an orphanage for boys. We volunteered at Mother Theresa’s home for dying children and her home for dying adults. The real tragedy was that these people would not have been dying in the US. Most of them had treatable diseases but they were dying for lack of simple medicines.

Some of us went up a mountain in Haiti on horses with supplies to a place where people had never seen a doctor. Three hundred sick people showed up at dawn at the  opening  of a newly built cinder block clinic. Many of them had walked all night. We did not have enough medicine for a third of them. I slept in the two room house of the district health agent in one of two beds, which I shared.  There were 12 other people sleeping on the floor in the house. At the clinic there were children with red hair which should have been black, a child who weighed 10 pounds at one year of age, children with bellies bloated with parasites, and children swollen up from malnutrition.

It was all I could do for the three days up on that mountain to not cry all day.

This experience affected our whole family profoundly. To me, it felt as if I was at the scene of an accident and if I could do something, I should do something. I volunteered in Haiti at a village clinic a couple times a year for the next 15 years. But after that time it seemed to me that treating the children, sick with diseases  related to malnutrition, was like spitting in the ocean. Prescribing medicine over and over was going nowhere. About this time, in Africa, a colleague of mine, Dr. Mark Manary, who is here today with his wife, Mardi, was working with Dr. Andre Briend on a new recipe and an creative new way of thinking about the treatment of malnutrition. Their new idea was to make a fortified peanut butter with milk, sugar, oil, vitamins and minerals, and send it home with the parents. At that time the recommended treatment for malnutrition was a costly hospitalization for a month…. but 25% of the children died and 50% had no change. This new recipe has a 85-90% recovery rate.

I found a hand grinder and we started making 100 kg a month of this miracle peanut butter in a Haitian church schoolroom almost nine years ago. Children who were lifeless in my arms on admission were running around the clinic in two weeks.

Since then, we have moved five times into different substandard rental properties and changed our machinery five times until we now have very sophisticated machines run by Haitians. We have saved the lives of 30,000 children so far but we are on track to save the lives of 80,000 children in the next year. With the help of many people, we are in the midst of building a new factory to make not only this life saving Medika Mamba but also products to prevent malnutrition, feed school children upon arrival in the morning, and supplement pregnant and lactating women.

One does not succeed on one’s own. An army of volunteers and donors has linked arms with Meds & Food for Kids. Each of them was moved to acknowledge that the dire situation of Haiti’s people required them to give of themselves. Our workers have had to cope with fire, hurricanes, earthquakes and civil disturbances.

The wounded world needs everyone of you to find your niche for making a positive difference. We all have different talents. We all have different obligations and responsibilities to our families. Some of us in the room are luckier than others but we are all luckier than at least 10% of people in the US and the billion people living on less than $2 a day elsewhere in the world. These are people who cannot keep their children alive for lack of food and medical care and who cannot escape war and violence. 

Will sharing make a person happy? Yes. Will sharing make a person feel important? Yes. This sharing need not be painful. On the contrary, it could be very rewarding, make a full and rich and interesting life and could be done in many, many areas and ways. We all want to be important. The fastest way to being important is to be necessary. There are many niches in the world where one’s talents can make a real difference.

School smarts are one kind of intelligence. Being smart or talented is a gift. One does nothing to deserve it. But being educated is different from being smart. You have just begun your education. Be willing to learn and you will go farther faster. There is much you still need to know.

I am not much for heroes and heroines. It seems to me that we all act out of our own best interest. This is not bad if humans realize that their best interest is tied to the well being of their neighbors on the planet and to the overall health of the environment on our small globe. Act in your own best interest and do more good than harm.

Life is not a zero sum game. It is mysteriously a logarithmic game; the more you “give” the more you receive in meaningfulness, in happiness, in having interesting challenges and way to spend your time and thoughts.

When I feel like complaining, which is pretty often actually, I remember to think about that mystery of the universe that we in this room are so fortunate and a billion people are barely alive, eeking out a living in squalid conditions with short and uncomfortable lives. Yet it is a tribute to those “bottom billion” that they get up everyday and do what needs to be done to feed their kids, feed themselves and stay alive. They could complain, but who would listen?

To do development work intelligently we need to go beyond rescue and stay for a long time to develop trust and be persistent in the many small steps that make progress possible.

Do not be afraid. We each have one life to live and then we are dead. Don’t fear failure–just redefine it as experience and training and information gathering and cultural literacy training. Be honest with yourself and everybody else. You always sleep better at night. Be humble. It is rare and attractive. Practice self control. It gets easier the more you do it. Give credit to others.

To quote Mahatma Ghandi: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Follow your bliss, earn a paycheck AND make the world a better place at the same time. These are perfectly consistent goals. Live life consciously. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake” said Henry David Thoreau. Keep your eyes and ears and heart open to ways to be of service.

Be generous. Be calm. Whatever your barriers and problems, others have worse. Your meaningful, consonant, conscious and well lived life will be its own reward to you.

Hats off to you and all the people who helped you get this far. Thank you for allowing me to celebrate your achievement with you today.