For those of us who have the privilege of serving others in the healthcare professions, we know that amid challenges and discouragements, even pandemics, there are times when patients transcend tribulation in ways that are instructive and touch our souls.
I think back to clinic visits over the years with patients living with Trisomy 21, whose visits I would eagerly anticipate, knowing that I would get a joyful hug and loving greeting as I walked into the exam room which would keep me smiling throughout a busy day.
But closer to home, I had the tremendous blessing – and I use the word ‘tremendous’ advisedly in its most comprehensive definition, meaning not only ‘greatness or excellence’ but also the broader sense of ‘arousing awe and trembling’ – of having a younger brother who taught and inspired me from my earliest memories, as he overcame great physical challenges. I share part of his story as an example of how God instructs us through the lives of those who overcome.
My younger brother, Stephen Glenn Teusink, died a few days ago in his 66th year, having lived victoriously in the face of mobility challenges from severe cerebral palsy, initially acquired when he was three months old from encephalitis complicating chicken pox. Decades later it was exacerbated by being stabbed in the neck with resulting spinal cord damage during a robbery in his apartment, not long after starting to live independently as a young adult.
Steve’s vibrant Christian faith, fierce independence, enthusiasm, ready smile and laughter and what the French call ‘la joie de vivre’ were a blessing to all who knew him, particularly my sister and myself who grew up with him and assumed our family was typical. Steve was my primary motivation for pursuing a medical career. His way of tackling life head on was an inspiration to all who were privileged to know him, including those of us who knew him best.
After graduation from secondary school, Steve attended college and worked in data entry for the City of Seattle. He was the first person with his severe degree of spastic quadriplegia and significant speech difficulties (he used a typing pad with voice synthesizer to communicate) to serve on a jury (twice) and he was active in his church. When the sanctuary of the church he attended was renovated, Steve served as a consultant representing church members in wheelchairs.
He was asked where the wheelchairs should be located during worship: in the back near the entrance doors for ease of access, or in the front indicating a place of honor where everybody could see them? He responded, slowly typing one letter at a time, that they should be right in the middle of the congregation, where they belonged. And that’s where they were placed, in the middle, even though that might impede the smooth flow of other parishioners as they arrived and left. But in that impediment, interaction occurred with those in wheelchairs to the benefit of everyone.
During my infrequent home assignment visits back to the States when I would attend church with him, I would meet his friends. Once, a distinguished Seattle business man, whom I recognised from television commercials, turned around and introduced himself as a friend of Steve’s and wondered who I was, sitting in that place of honour. After services, when we would go out to lunch at his favourite restaurant, the host/hostess and wait staff spoke of their appreciation for Steve as a regular customer. Just being with him felt like an honour.
When Steve left the love and care of my parents’ nurturing home as a young adult, our parents prayed daily that people would be kind to him in his vulnerability. That prayer was answered in abundance and I again saw poignant evidence of it two years ago on a brief visit home from overseas, when I went to see him in the small group home where he lived after his retirement.
Steve had just left the residence before I arrived, in his electric wheelchair, taking the backroads and paths for his daily shopping outing at the local supermarket located about a mile away. I drove and arrived just as he was entering the store. As we walked down the aisle together, the store manager came up and with a cautiously protective air, asked if I knew Steve. I replied that I was his big brother and she immediately relaxed, smiled and shared how much they appreciated his daily visits to buy one or two items.
One of the workers would be assigned to help him get the articles he desired off the shelves and then helped him pay by getting his debit card from his wallet and running it through the card reader. Steve was totally vulnerable and completely dependent on the kindness of strangers but in that dependence exhibited a confidence and strength that was extraordinary and profoundly instructive.
All of us are only temporarily ‘enabled’ in this broken world and whether our period of disability extends for decades or only briefly before we transition into eternity, it’s helpful to have guides who have walked that path before us.
My brother’s strong Christian faith enabled him to face each day with courage and optimism. He was by far the bravest person I have ever known.
Steve, I look forward to walking and talking with you when next we meet, unencumbered by human frailty and made whole by the God in whose Image we were made. Thank you for being so patient with your big brother when in the midst of my busyness and ‘abilities’, I was actually the ‘disabled’ one.
‘Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’
(Hamlet, Act V Scene ii)
Tim Teusink MD MA (Bioethics) is an American physician based in France with SIM in France but his primary work involves teaching Bioethics around the African Continent to medical students and resident physicians. In normal times he travels a lot and also teaches at the CMDA-CMDE Conferences in Thailand and Greece.