From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

Pass It On

We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind.

Martin Luther King Jr.

There I was with my wife and our two-year-old daughter, in an isolated, snow-packed campground in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley, with a comatose vehicle. We were on a journey to celebrate the completion of my second year of residency training, but my recently acquired medical savvy was of no use to the recreational vehicle we had rented for the trip.

This happened 20 years ago, but I remember it as clearly as I do the cloudless Oregon sky. I had just awakened, fumbled around with the light switch, and been greeted with darkness. I tried the ignition. No response. As I climbed out of the camper, fortunately my profanities were drowned out in the roar of the white-water rapids.

My wife and I concluded that we were victims of a dead battery and that my legs were of more value than my automotive knowledge. I decided to hike back to the main highway, several miles away, while she stayed with our daughter.

Two hours and a twisted ankle later, I arrived at the highway and flagged down a logging truck, which let me off at the first gas station we came to and drove off. As I approached the station, I had the sinking realization that it was Sunday morning. The place was closed. But there was a pay phone and a tattered phone book. I called the only automotive service company located in the next town, some 20 miles away.

Bob answered and listened as I explained my predicament. “No problem,” he said as I gave my location. “I’m usually closed on Sundays, but I can be there in about half an hour.” I was relieved that he was coming, but I was also mindful of the economic implications of his offer to help.

Bob arrived in his glistening red wrecker, and we drove to the campground. As I got out of the tow truck, I turned around and watched in utter amazement as Bob leveraged himself out of the truck on braces and crutches. He was a paraplegic!

He made his way over to the camper, and I again began the mental gymnastics of calculating the cost of his beneficence.

“Yep, it’s just a dead battery. A little jump start and you’ll be on your way.” Bob restored the battery, and while it was recharging, he entertained my daughter with magic tricks. He even pulled a quarter out of his ear and gave it to her.

As he was putting his jumper cables back into the truck, I asked him how much I owed him. “Oh, nothing,” he replied, to my astonishment.

“I need to pay you something,” I insisted.

“No,” he reiterated. “Back in Vietnam, someone helped me out of a worse situation than this when I lost my legs, and that guy told me to just pass it on. So you don’t owe me anything. Just remember, whenever you get the chance, you pass it on.”

Fast-forward about 20 years to my busy medical office, where I frequently train medical students. Cindy, a second-year student from an out-of-state school, has come to spend a month with me so that she can stay with her mother, who lives in the area. We have just finished seeing a patient whose life has been ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse. Cindy and I are in the nurses’ station discussing possible treatment options, and suddenly I notice tears welling up in her eyes. “Are you uncomfortable talking about this sort of thing?” I asked.

“No,” Cindy sobbed. “It’s just that my mother could be that patient. She has the same problem.”

We spent the lunch hour secluded in the conference room, discussing the tragic history of Cindy’s alcoholic mom. Tearfully and painfully, Cindy bared her soul as she recounted the years of anger, embarrassment and hostility that had characterized her family’s existence. I offered Cindy the hope of getting her mother into treatment, and we arranged for her mom to meet with a trained counselor. After strong encouragement from the other family members, Cindy’s mom readily consented to treatment. She went into the hospital for several weeks and emerged a new and changed person. Cindy’s family had been on the verge of disintegration; for the first time, they experienced a glimmer of hope. “How can I ever repay you?” Cindy asked.

As I thought back to that comatose camper in the snowbound campground and the paraplegic good Samaritan, I knew there was only one answer I could give her. “Just pass it on.”

Kenneth G. Davis, M.D.

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