Success in life often depends more on perspiration than inspiration
THE LIFE STORY OF DR. MARY GRODA-LEWIS, M.D.
Mary Groda-Lewis had been an elementary-school dropout, street fighter, and juvenile offender. She spent four years in reform school, was a 16-year-old illiterate, an unwed mother at 20. A stroke nearly killed her. Yet, despite these daunting barriers, she was determined to become a doctor. Now, at 52, Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis is a gutsy woman who beat the odds.
During the mid-1980s, her life story was the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the subject of a CBS-TV movie, Love, Mary (which aired on October 8, 1985, and starred Kristy McNichol). Since then, it's been the subject of two Internet-based articles.
This is really six articles combined into one: "In a Reformatory in '66, an M.D. Today" (The New York Times, May 23, 1984); "Success Story: From Juvenile Delinquent to M.D." (Family Circle, February 26, 1985); "From Delinquent to Doctor, Mary Groda-Lewis' Real-Life Triumph Unreels in a TV Film" (People Weekly, October 14, 1985); and "Mary's Impossible Dream" (Reader's Digest, July, 1986); an excerpt from "Potential2" (Personal Development Web site, 2000); and "Mary Groda-Lewis: Famous Doctor Opens Doors To The Heart" (RamBlyn Rose Web site, 2001)
"A doctor is just a role I'm playing," says a woman who overcame great odds to find her place in life.
CAPTION: Mary Groda-Lewis at work in a laboratory at Albany Medical College, from which she will graduate today [in 1984]. Her family, including her sister, above, Karen Kontonasakis, and her father, Fennie, have flown from the West Coast to celebrate with her.
CAPTION: The happy graduate celebrates with family: sister-in-law Judy Berkowitz, nieces Susan and Laurie, husband David, and proud in-laws Milton and Yeta Lewis.
CAPTION: Mary was momentarily overcome at her 1984 medical school graduation. Of being a doctor, she says, "I just love it."
CAPTION: Mary on daily rounds with Dr. W. Clare Reesey.
CAPTION: "She's so honest," patients say of Dr. Mary (with mother-to-be Susan Witherow) at a family practice center in Youngstown, Ohio.
CAPTION: Dr. Mary examining a young patient.
CAPTION: Husband David, 40, daughter Iris, 17, son Christopher, 15, and Mary are comfortably settled in their Youngstown home.
CAPTION: Sharing a quiet moment with her husband.
CAPTION: Kristy McNichol, in the title role of Love, Mary, pours out her tale of unhappiness to a fellow reformatory inmate.
CAPTION: Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis had trouble learning as a child and was sent to reform school, where she was diagnosed with dyslexia and began to turn her life around. Today, she is a family doctor at Wahiawa General Hospital's family clinic in Mililani.
CAPTION: Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis shared a laugh with patient Peter Harding during a recent consultation at the Mililani Family Clinic.
Years ago, while unearthing an ancient Egyptian tomb, an archaeologist came upon seeds buried in a piece of wood. Planted, the seeds realized their potential after more than 3,000 years! Are there conditions in the lives of people so discouraging, so defeating, that human beings--regardless of inherent potentiality--are doomed to lives of failure and quiet desperation? Or are there also seeds of possibility in people, an urge for becoming that is so strong that the hard crust of adversity is breached? Consider this story that came over the wires of the Associated Press on May 23, l984:
Have you heard about how Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis became a physician in spite of incredible odds? Hers is an inspiring and challenging biography.
This morning, unbeknown to you, Mary Groda-Lewis woke up, wondering, "Who am I going to meet today? Who will I get to explore this world with?" The doors are now open to her practice as a family physician. Her office is located behind the Riptide restaurant in Sequim, Washington. Mary and her husband, David, moved here five months ago from Twin Falls, Idaho. Smiling she announces, "I think I'll like it here!"
You may have read about her in Reader's Digest; or watched T.V. and seen her on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" or "Good Morning America." Even if you have not, she is one of those rare persons who, when you meet, it feels like you have known forever.
Actress Kristy McNichol memorialized her inspiring life in a made-for-T.V. CBS movie, Love Mary, in 1985. The film dealt with Mary as she overcame dyslexia, a massive stroke following the birth of her second child, and the difficulties she encountered in attaining her medical degree.
There is an impressive list of honors earned in her medical career. The distinguished awards she has received attest to her integrity.
Rest assured, celebrity status does not faze the down-to-earth heart of Mary. She is too real for that. She chose to settle down in Sequim, after all.
The humble home (behind Riptide) with all the dolls displayed in the windows is her office. Go ahead and walk up to view the window exhibit; it is all right. Take a while to study the dolls, and you will see how expressive they are. Their maker has a keen sensitivity about the human spirit. Mary made them.
Note the remarkably fine details of the dolls clothing. Their intricate needlework is fascinating. The same hands that fashioned these dolls heal people.
Walk into the office, and you will see that this place continues to be different. A small atrium adjoins the waiting room. A delicate waterfall trickles in its corner, surrounded by a bevy of various flora and fantasy. The whole place seems to release peace. Surprisingly, it is possible to want to wait in a doctor's office.
Clearly, Mary loves kids.
"You really get attached to kids in your care. You get lucky enough to meet some vivacious children. Every person is so unique. There has never been a person like you and there never will be!"
She is a small, soft-spoken woman who would rather you call her Mary and forget the "D" word. She feels strongly that the title, "doctor," tends to isolate physicians from their patients.
"I don't like to be called a doctor. My name is Mary, that's who I am. A doctor is just a role that I'm playing," said Mary, who strongly believes that the title of "doctor" tends to isolate physicians from their patients. On the other hand, when speaking about patients, she chuckles, "The vast majority of the time, that is indeed what they are! They are patient people!"
She does not like not like calling the people she sees patients. "Rather, they are my friends that I see.
"I like being a friend--that's the greatest part about being a doctor. You get to help all sorts of people and touch their lives, bodies, heart and soul."
She has a lot of experience as a patient. She recalls hearing medical practitioners say things like "the patient with pneumonia."
"This allows the pneumonia to be the important contribution and not the person. If only we could understand the wholeness of the person first and then extend into the problem that person is encountering! For these are persons that need my care and I need their care." It grieves her deeply when schools teach medicine as a means to preserve one's life style, instead of a life's profession.
Her philosophy as a physician is this: "There are times in medicine that I control the situation. Let us say that you come in here in a coma; you cannot talk to me. Well, you would not want me not to take control of the situation and figure out what is going on. That is part of the agreement that we make as patient/doctor. That is very rare. In my opinion, the majority of the time, the relationship should be a more inter-dependent one. And if I don't take time to listen to what your beliefs are, what your ideas are, what your desires are, and explore that with you, then I can isolate both of us very easily."
Mary is a skilled conversationalist, with the ability of explaining medicine in an easy-to-understand way. She has a knack for extracting pertinent information about you and remembering it later. (Reporters are no exception. It is her hope that people who see her will come away more educated, and because of that, in more control of their situation.)
The interview takes an unexpected turn when, asked about her childhood, she allows to you to glimpse her vulnerability. She almost whispers.
As a child, Mary Groda did not learn to read and write. Experts labeled her retarded. As an adolescent, she "earned" an additional label, "incorrigible," and was sentenced to two years in a reformatory.
In a way, Mary Groda-Lewis says, she is glad she was arrested that day when she was 16.
The boy she was with, the day she was arrested, drove recklessly in a stolen car, careering over a misty mountain road in Oregon. A police car gave chase, and an officer fired, shredding the tires of the youths' car. Out of control, it plunged 80 feet into a ravine. Miraculously, the couple were unhurt.
Mary Groda--16 years old, illiterate, and desperately poor--was sent to a reformatory in 1966. But the reformatory, so often a stepping-stone to disaster, was where life began anew for her. It was here, ironically, in this closed-in place, that Mary--bending to the challenge to learn--worked at her task for as long as 16 hours a day. Her hard work paid off. She was awarded her (GED) high school diploma.
The following year, Mary was 17 when she first confessed her secret ambition.
"I want to be a doctor," she told her mother, a registered nurse. "My experiences have been different from those of most doctors. Maybe I can bring something special to medicine."
Mary's dream didn't appear realistic. A few evenings before her graduation from medical school, sitting on the porch of her ramshackle wooden house, Mary said, "Somehow, in the back of my mind as I was growing up, I always thought of this as a dream. It didn't seem realistic, because when I was growing up, men were doctors and women were nurses. It always seemed a dream."
It also did not seem realistic, because she was an elementary-school dropout. As a child, Mary was labeled retarded. As a youngster she couldn't read because of dyslexia, which was misdiagnosed. Born a migrant farm worker, Mary could not read or write--recognize and comprehend written words--until she was 16 and her dyslexia was diagnosed. By then, she had been labeled incorrigible and sent to reform school in Oregon. Prior to that, she got into trouble with the law and was sent to a juvenile delinquency home at 13 and again at 15. During her teenage years, she was considered incorrigible and spent years in reformatories.
The frustration she experienced led to behavioral problems. She had preferred associating with vagrants rather than going to school. Instead of receiving sympathy, she received a sentence to a reformatory. Noticeably bright but obstinate, she had always angrily resented authority, and had twice been sentenced to schools for delinquent youth. She had spent two years in a reform school in addition to six months in a reformatory, and was the unmarried mother of two children by the time she was 21. She had only begun to learn the basics of reading and writing the year before, when she was 16.
"One of my counselors in reformatory told me, 'Mary, you're not stupid, you're creative and clever,' and sent me to a professional (who made the diagnosis)," said Mary, who overcame the condition to become a family physician. But more misfortune was to visit Mary Groda. After leaving the reformatory, she became pregnant without benefit of marriage. Then, two years later a second pregnancy resulted in a stroke, erasing her hard-earned powers of reading and writing. With the help and support of her father, Mary battled back, regaining what she had lost.
Since October, she has been working at Wahiawa General Hospital's family clinic in Mililani.
Her story became the subject of a 1984 CBS-TV movie starring Kristy McNichol. Mary's story inspired the 1985 CBS television movie, "Love Mary," which starred Kristy McNichol, and has been featured in People magazine, Reader's Digest, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. It wouldn't have been a story at all if Mary hadn't overcome her demons to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. The film dealt with Mary's struggle to overcome dyslexia, the stroke she suffered during the birth of her second child, and the difficulties she encountered attaining her medical degree.
Once the dyslexia was diagnosed, Mary was able to turn her life around. She learned to read, and with newfound self-esteem earned her high school equivalency degree at age 18 as Oregon's most outstanding Upward Bound student. She graduated from a community college in Oregon and fought past 15 medical school rejections to get her degree from Albany Medical College in 1984.
It was someone finally taking interest in what was causing her learning problems that led to the turnaround, said Mary, who grew up thinking she was stupid.
"I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was ten years old, but I never thought it would be possible because I thought I was stupid," she says. "I was ignorant. I did not know how to read or write. I was illiterate until the age of sixteen." The crushed and grieved spirit of her childhood inhabits the present.
Several years later, when Vietnam vet David Lewis began dating Mary, while both were students at a community college in Oregon, he told her of an odd experience he had had overseas. His fellow GIs sometimes found personal notes in the rations packets.
"Just remember you are loved and cared about," said one. "Keep up your good spirits," urged another. All were signed, "Love, Mary."
Lewis told Mary that, while in Nam, he had wanted to find the mysterious note writer and write a story on how she had cheered up the troops. With a giggle, Mary told him that he had found her. What's more, Mary said, she eventually was fired from her job as a rations packer. Her supposed offense: defacing government property.
David Lewis, of course, was incredulous. He became even more so when Mary told him more about herself--that she was a dyslexic who did not read until she was 16, that she had been shot at by police and done time in reformatories, that she was the unwed mother of two, and had suffered five cardiac arrests.
"And it took me five years," David says, "to figure out that whatever she told me was true."
Ten years later, on Thursday, May 24, 1984--eighteen years after she had stood behind the barbed-wire fences of the Hillcrest School for Girls in Salem, Oregon--she received a degree from the Albany Medical College (New York) that made her Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis (she and David had married six years before). Mary made her way up to the podium, where the dean of Albany Medical School waited to hand her a diploma. Mary tried to let nothing overshadow the pride she felt at that moment, but as she stood on the stage in front of her fellow graduates, memories of her troubled past came flooding back.
She recalled standing in the classroom "dummy corner," her long brown hair hiding the pain in her eyes, her face hot with embarrassment. Many times, Mary had left the classroom in tears, vowing never to return. But her parents insisted, "You must get an education; you have to go back."
At 13, Mary couldn't stand it anymore. She stopped going to school altogether. Instead, she spent her days with other "outcasts"--drinking, smoking, committing petty crimes. Caught for truancy and possession of alcohol, she was sent away to reform school. For two long years, experts tried to "rehabilitate" the unruly youngster, but the transformation never materialized. Fifteen months after her release, Mary was arrested again--this time, for auto theft. Committed to the juvenile correctional facility in Salem, Oregon, Mary begged her parents, "Please, get me out of here!" But there was nothing they could do--their daughter had broken the law, and this was her punishment.
The words, "Congratulations, Doctor," brought Mary back out of her reverie. Blinking back tears, she murmured, "Thank you, God," and finally buried the ghosts of her past.
Later, standing with her family outside the auditorium, Mary admitted, "Throughout medical school, I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, but we've made a mistake. You don't belong here.'" After a rough start, Mary Groda-Lewis created her compass and map. Although she's no longer skinny, and her brown hair is now short and threaded with gray, you can still see traces of the mischievous youngster in her round, youthful face. She's embarrassed by all the attention she's receiving, and doesn't think there's anything remarkable about her accomplishments. But few could have triumphed over such a tormented and troubled past the way Mary has.
On Tuesday, October 8, 1985, the story of Mary Groda-Lewis unfolded to a national audience in the CBS movie, Love, Mary. The film, starring Kristy McNichol, took Mary from her street-hellion days to the fulfillment of her unlikely dreams. That year, she was Mary Groda-Lewis, M.D., in her second year of family practice residency at the Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Ohio.
"Her determination and courage just amazed me," says McNichol. "With all that she went through, Mary never lost sight of her goal."
Getting to where Mary is now meant overcoming enormous obstacles. Born 52 years ago in San Antonio, Texas, in 1949, Mary was the second of seven children born to Christine and Fennie Groda, and grew up moving from place to place. As the second child, Mary barely remembers when her family was not struggling to pay the bills.
"But," she says, "we never felt poor--everyone we knew was struggling the same way we were." The family consisted of Mom, a nurse, and Dad, a hard-working philosophical person, and seven children. Her mother, Christine, was a registered nurse; her father, Fennie, an Air Force cook.
Soon after Mary's birth, her father left the service. He tried unsuccessfully to establish and open a restaurant, a cafe. The retired Air Force sergeant lost his restaurant business in 1953, and in the 1950s, the family faced financial ruin. Although Christine could usually find work, her salary was never enough to support a family of nine.
"When I was 6, we became migrant workers, moving from farm to farm throughout the state of Texas," Mary says. The older ones would help work the crop fields with their father as farm immigrant laborers. They were not a rich family but they were tightly bonded. Mary admits that the work was hard, "but we worked together as a family. We always had each other--none of us ever lacked for love."
"My desire to become a doctor came when I was a migrant farm worker. I would take care of all the poor, sick kids. I became like a little old mother hen. When you watch someone die of diphtheria or hold a dying child in your arms, and you are only 7 years old, it makes quite an impact."
That was about 40 years ago, and while she believed at the time that there had to be a better way to provide health care, "not much has changed today," she said. "It's actually gotten a whole lot worse if you're an uninsured person."
Despite the struggle to survive, Mary remembers those early years as being filled with love. Only the memories of school rankle.
Her trouble, Mary contends, began when she was enrolled in a regular school and could no longer play hooky. She never did well there. "When you are traveling with crops, you don't go to school much," she says. "I'd be in a school for about three weeks and then would be transferred to another one. I remember going to nine schools in one year. By the time my family finally settled down, I was really belligerent.
"I thought there was more to life than sitting in a classroom all day. School was a bore," she says. Her main problem? Although the problem was unknown to her teachers and parents, and would not be diagnosed for many years, Mary had dyslexia, a reading impairment which reverses letters, a disability that made learning to read, write, and spell very difficult--impossible--for her. Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that hinders the learning of literacy skills. The cause is unknown, but it runs in families, according to the Dyslexia Institute. Mary was not diagnosed until she was in her teens.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to learn," she explains. "I simply couldn't. In school, I felt like a total alien." Independent and proud, she faked her way by inventing stories based on pictures in the books. She has a photogenic memory, and by studying the pictures in books and making up many credible stories to go with them, she hid her disability well. Even in her early years, Mary was noticeably bright but obstinate.
Her disability went unrecognized; no one understood that Mary was dyslexic. She was made to stand in the classroom "dummy corner," her long brown hair hiding the pain in her eyes, her face hot with embarrassment. Many times, Mary left the classroom in tears, vowing never to return. But her parents insisted, "You must get an education; you have to go back."
As the years went by, she felt increasingly intimidated by school.
"It´s very difficult, when you feel stupid, to want to be there." A morose seriousness overtakes her as she relates, "A lot of people hide a lot of what they cannot do through their creativity.
"I thought I was stupid, but felt I was clever. I had developed mechanisms to avoid people knowing how stupid I was."
Mary recalls attending the fifth grade at a missionary school in San Antonio, Texas. One day, she remembers staring out the classroom window. There was an elderly woman outside who was sifting through a garbage can, looking for food.
"We were studying King Arthur and the Round Table," she said. "I was looking out the window and saw a man going through the garbage, looking for something to eat.
Mary's teacher droned on and on about King Arthur and some sword. She was listening with only half an ear. Her thoughts centered on the woman outside.
Suddenly the teacher asked her a question. Not knowing the answer, she ad-libbed, "This is a time that tries men's souls!" She remembered her dad saying that. "We need to be more concerned about the homeless and not so concerned about some lost sword."
"When the teacher called on me, I told her, 'You are never going to get me to care about King Arthur until you tell me why we allow that to happen.'"
She was sent to the principal's office.
The sword was lost and she did not know how to find it, but she did know that she was full and could take her lunch to the woman outside. Plucky in her viewpoints, she constantly found her way into trouble.
"That dreaded office. I did seem to find my way there, no matter what school I was attending."
The cycle of frustration and humiliation remained largely unbroken until the family moved to Del Rio, Texas. Then 10, Mary gave up on school. She was so desperate to do anything that would keep her out of school, she paid a neighborhood friend--a boy--to break her middle finger. Her trepidations about school, so strongly felt, caused her to come up with what, to her, was an ingenious idea at the time. She did not like the boy next door. She had determined that she would fight him. Her plan was to get him to fight her and have him bust her right pinky.
"Once we had a big writing assignment to do, so I had my next-door neighbor break my fingers so I wouldn't be able to do it," Mary says. "My thoughts were drawn from what I was seeing rather than what I should have been learning from reading.
"Whenever you're working with children that have problems, you've got to listen to each child. But how many times do we listen?"
One day, Mary deliberately picked a fight with the boy, threw punches at him, and and wound up with a broken finger. The mischievous grin of the imp of long ago spreads on her face, "because I was right-handed."
She did not win that fight, but she did accomplish what she had set out to do.
"I won what I wanted, a broken finger. It hurt more than I thought it would. It throbbed, but it was only pain." This was more endurable to her than school. This broken finger was her "trophy" that she had "succeeded against the institution of education." It saved her from having to write in class.
Her mother, Christine, took her daughter to a small hospital in Del Rio. There, she met a doctor, Mr. Hi Newby, for whom Mary's mother worked as a nurse in the local hospital.
"'Hi' was a strange name to me. This was like the male friend that I had that was named Boy. I was walking with my mother downtown when I saw him and said,'Hi, Boy!' to him.
"My mother told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to address everyone by their names. Not `Hi, boy; hi, girl.´ She told me that calling him 'boy' was a sign of disrespect. I tried to explain to her that his mother had named him Boy. She just stared at me with those eyes, you know, all mothers have those eyes. Eyes that tell you to stop making up stories. Now here was a man with the first name, 'Hi.' Not Steve or John, Ron or David, but Hi."
Dr. Newby set her finger. He urged her to be careful until the finger had healed. Instead, to escape school, Mary kept removing the cast.
In talking with Mary as he reset the finger, Dr. Newby began to understand her aggressive independence and her frustrations. The kindly old doctor did more than treat Mary's finger--he gave her a respite from the classes she hated so much, by prescribing daily finger soakings in his office for several hours. The treatment had no medicinal benefit, but it kept the young girl occupied and out of trouble. He ordered his new patient to follow him on hospital rounds until each new cast dried. He "let me go on rounds with him; it was his way of keeping me out of trouble," Mary says.
"It became a battle of wills," he wryly remembers. "I told her I was just as stubborn as she was. And I outlasted her."
Dr. Newby took Mary on his rounds. She recalls watching him work his "works of compassion." Dr. Newby fascinated Mary by explaining simple tests and allowing her to peer into his microscope. He was kind, compassionate, and firm, an adult whom Mary neither feared nor resented. The days spent in Dr. Newby's office had a lasting impression on Mary. She decided that, one day, she would be like him, and help people who were hurt.
"Right then, I knew I wanted to be a family doctor, just like Dr. Newby. I thought that if I ever became a doctor, he was the sort of doctor I'd want to be."
(A few evenings before her graduation from medical school, sitting on the porch of her ramshackle wooden house, Mary said, "Somehow, in the back of my mind as I was growing up, I always thought of this as a dream. It didn't seem realistic, because when I was growing up, men were doctors and women were nurses. It always seemed a dream."
Decades later, she added, "I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was ten years old, but I never thought it would be possible because I thought I was stupid. I was ignorant. I did not know how to read or write. I was illiterate until the age of sixteen.
"My desire to become a doctor came when I was a migrant farm worker. I would take care of all the poor, sick kids. I became like a little old mother hen. When you watch someone die of diphtheria or watch someone die of diarrhea or hold a dying child in your arms, and you are only 7 years old, it makes quite an impact.")
Mary's happiness was short-lived. In the summer of 1961, shortly after this event, the Groda family moved again, this time to a rural area outside Portland, Oregon. Dad moved there first, taking the four middle children with him and as soon as they were all settled, they sent for Mom, big sister, and the babies.
It was the first of many summers that the family worked as crop pickers, moving from farm to farm in the fruit country of Oregon, picking berries. Like many poor families in the Northwest, the Grodas--Mary's parents, six brothers and sisters, and four other youngsters whom her parents had adopted--worked every summer as seasonal farm laborers.
Mary remembers picking berries as the hardest work of her life, and she still loathes the sight, smell, and taste of strawberries.
"I will not eat strawberries to this day," Mary says with a laugh. "You have to break your back getting down to them. You're on your hands and knees all day long from bush to bush, with a crate behind you. They are the worst thing in the world to pick."
But evenings, that first summer, were spent in what became a labor of love: scavenging for materials to build a home. Everyone in the family helped. For a while, they lived in that house. Nobody cared that the house lacked plumbing and electricity. It was theirs.
The mornings in their new home would begin with Mary building a fire in the wood stove and making breakfast, so she could get out of the dishes. The evenings found her at the sink with the suds.
"I had, for many years, made a story of a large battle for the dishes. Each day the forks, the spoons, and the knives would go to battle and come back from the battlefield to the hospital. My job there, as a doctor, was to repair their wounds and help them face another day. I was good at the silverware and the dishes. The pots and pans never really seemed to participate with the battle. They just did not fit into the scheme of things."
But September brought the horror of school. Mary sat in the back row, made herself inconspicious, and waited for recess--but mainly, she played hooky.
"I started skipping school, because I didn't know what they were talking about," she recalls. "We had to walk down the railroad tracks and across the fields to catch the bus to school. Farther down the tracks were the hobos.
"I used to talk to the hobos all day, share my life with the hobos. It was just unbearable in school, not understanding what was going on."
"If you said not to do something," her mother admits, "that's just what Mary would do. By age 12 or 13, Mary did whatever she wanted." Although she grew increasingly difficult to control, her parents didn't close her out of their lives. Love linked them.
One afternoon, in 1962, their house was lashed into rubble by a violent windstorm. Even when the family moved farther into the mountains and later to Portland (where Fennie sold fresh produce door-to-door), Mary avoided school. She hated her new city school. At 13, she couldn't stand it anymore.
"It was hard times. We were really poor, and people didn't accept us," says Mary. "It was a devastating time for me and my two sisters. All of us kids were devastated by the move. We weren't 'city folk.' We wore thirdhand clothes, ten years behind the times. Our appearance, manners, everything screamed backwoods-type people. We were totally unacceptable to our neighbors, and became scapegoats at school. We were poor, but we never felt poor until the city kids made us feel ashamed.
"My brothers and sisters compensated by studying harder and earning 'A's. But since I could barely write my name, much less get 'A's, I became a 'toughie.' I went into the streets. That was real life, real learning for me. And the kids there didn't care what I wore."
She stopped going to school altogether. Instead, adopting an insolent attitude, Mary spent her days with other "outcasts"--drinking, smoking, and committing petty crimes. She earned a reputation as a street fighter, and tried petty theft, alcohol, and drugs.
"I was in a street gang. I started drinking," Mary says. "I got drunk on beer and refused to go to school. I'd be out after curfew, getting in trouble. At 13, I was in a reformatory."
Caught for truancy and possession of alcohol, she was picked up several times by the police and assigned to juvenile counselors for guidance. It didn't work.
Can you remember being a thirteen-year-old? Puberty has begun for young women around that age. Remember being asked out on a date by an older guy, a seventeen-year-old? Mary does. He was cute and he was the preacher's son!
It was somewhere around 1964, and they were necking in the back seat of his car when "a light shone through the window. Oh God, He had come to look down on us. I was not prepared to see Him yet. I thought, 'Go away and we'll talk later!' This was not the light of God, but instead the light was from a tall man in blue with a silver badge on his chest." The officer hauled the two teens into a juvenile detention center.
Juveniles had no legal rights before 1968. The courts took custody of whomever they chose, and there was nothing Mary or her family could do about it. Smirking with sarcastic tactfulness, she relates, "I was asked kindly to remain in their facilities for a while." She allows a weighty second to pass. "These facilities had locked bars."
After her fifth arrest, she was sent away to a reform school--to the first of two schools for juvenile delinquents--where she stayed for more than two years. For two long years, experts tried to "rehabilitate" the unruly youngster, but the transformation never materialized.
When Mary got out, she enrolled in high school, but her reputation shadowed her, and she was back in trouble immediately after her release. She still didn't know how to read or write. She couldn't deal with herself. She couldn't reconcile her intelligence with her ineptness. She took up with teenagers looking for fast cars and good times.
In 1966, fifteen months after her release, Mary was arrested again--this time, for auto theft. In a way, Mary says, she is glad she was arrested that day.
"I ran away with a boy named Jim," she says. "He had stolen a car, white with red trim. He had good taste, at least."
She ran off with the boyfriend. The day she was arrested, she and the boy she was with stole a car and were caught when the police shot out a rear tire. The boy drove recklessly in the stolen car, careering over a misty mountain road. Then came the high-speed police chase and the reformatory.
A police car gave chase, and an officer fired, shredding the tires of the youths' car. Careening out of control, the stolen car plunged 80 feet into a ravine. Miraculously, the couple were unhurt. The stint in the reformatory came after Mary and her boyfriend stole the car and led the police on the high-speed chase. "What can I say?...I was with the wrong guy," she said. "We stole the first car, and after that it was easy. Once a line is crossed, you experience a lot of emotional conflict.
"Eventually we got caught and had to face the consequences. My younger sister felt as if our family had been cheated. There was always an emptiness after I was removed from the home."
Mary--16 years old, illiterate, and desperately poor--was in police custody. Ultimately, this time, she was sentenced to the Hillcrest School for Girls, a state institution in Salem, Oregon. Committed to the juvenile correctional facility, Mary begged her parents, "Please, get me out of here!" But there was nothing they could do--their daughter had broken the law, and this was her punishment.
Reform school did little to rectify Mary's feelings of worthlessness.
"It was very clear to me, right from the beginning," Mary says bitterly, "that I was a 'problem' that had to be 'dealt with.'" She would have continued on this way, hurting herself and others, had it not been for one Hillcrest woman counselor, Karen Barr.
"For the first time in there, someone listened to me," says Mary, "and cared about how I was feeling."
The reformatory, so often a stepping-stone to disaster, was where life began anew for her. It was during her stints in reformatories that she learned how to deal with dyslexia.
"The best teacher I ever had was for biology (in reform school)," Mary says. "He knew something was not right with me, so he asked me to draw everything out."
The biology teacher's and counselor's perceptions were unique experiences that made all the difference for one troubled student. It meant a lot to her, she said. "As a doctor, I make sure everyone I see understands what I'm talking about," she said.
"I literally draw a picture for them."
Staffers at the reformatory considered her stupid, even retarded, but Karen Barr sensed something in Mary no one saw. Mary's life changed when the counselor helped her enter a federal education program for troubled teenagers who show potential, but have difficulty in school. Recognizing that Mary was highly intelligent, the counselor suspected and recognized Mary's dyslexia, and worked with her until she was accepted into Upward Bound. From among 150 girls, Karen chose 5 to attend a federally sponsored learning program called Upward Bound at the University of Oregon in Eugene, an experimental tutorial designed for troublesome youngsters from low-income families. Karen got Mary into the program and had her enrolled in special summer classes on the University of Oregon campus. That's when teachers discovered she had dyslexia, and she overcame the difficulties that had made reading and writing so hard.
For four months, Mary became a part of Upward Bound and lived in a dormitory, working one-on-one with teachers. In the Upward Bound Program at the University of Oregon, Dr. Arthur Pearl, then the program director of Upward Bound, and his colleagues worked day after day on Mary's dyslexia. Two young faculty members were assigned to her. The 16-hour-a-day sessions paid off in more ways than one.
"Two teachers worked with me 16 hours a day on reading, writing, and arithmetic. The teachers diagnosed my dyslexia," says Mary. "For the first time in 10 years, I felt the cloud of confusion and ignorance that I'd been living in start to lift."
"If there was a multiple loser, it was Mary, but she was persistent, plugging away at her work," recalls Arthur Pearl. It was there she learned to read by studying as long as sixteen hours a day. She found that if she covered up one of her eyes, she could control the amount of input to her brain and so, get a handle on reading. She began to diligently apply herself to her studies. Eventually she learned how to read, and revealed that she was actually highly intelligent.
Mary recalls: "They were wonderful to me; they told me I was intelligent. They taught me how to cope with my dyslexia, how to read and write. They turned on my mind to the joy of learning, and showed me that my kind of anger was self-destructive. 'Use it to push your ambition,' they told me.
"In four months, I moved from first grade to eighth grade. You can't imagine what a turn-on it is to have someone care about your academics."
Her progress was startling. In four months, Mary's reading ability advanced from a first- to eighth-grade level with an A average. She even was also named Oregon's outstanding Upward Bound student and chosen to represent the Upward Bound program in her state, Oregon, and go to Washington D.C. As Oregon's outstanding Upward Bound student, she represented the state at a White House ceremony and met President Lyndon Johnson. To leave the state she needed permission from her probation officer.
She was flown to Washington D.C., to receive a commendation from President Lyndon Johnson for her success in the program. There, she received her award in person from President Lyndon Johnson and Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey. But when reporters asked what advice Mary, then 16, could pass onto other juvenile offenders, she snapped back, "Don't get caught."
"I was bitter and angry," Mary says. "Only a few months before, these same people had locked me up, telling me I was worthless. Now they were giving me an award. Big deal. I could've spent my life being angry, but Karen Barr helped me to see how my anger and hate were only hurting me. I learned to channel that anger into something positive."
To avoid being returned to Hillcrest, Mary had to convince officials that she wanted to pursue her education and find a job. Since Mary was slated to return to the reformatory when the program ended, Karen Barr arranged for her to stay at the university on the condition she earn her high-school equivalency diploma. Art Pearl arranged for her to continue her schooling, and found her a clerical job in an office near his. The once-reluctant student studied like crazy, and in three months passed her high-school equivalency exam. Within a year, she had earned her G.E.D., her high-school equivalency diploma. Finally, at age seventeen, she was set free.
"I was finally on my own," says Mary. Now she could move into her own apartment.
"Upward Bound touched something deep inside me," Mary says, "a thrill for learning and an enjoyment of living I had never experienced before."
But even that didn't take immediately. Now 17, Mary was overcome with homesickness. Years had passed since she had lived with her family. As an insecure 17-year-old, she admits that she yearned to "love and be loved." She felt "emotionally isolated." She needed to feel wanted by family and friends. Mary was eager to explore all that life had to offer. When she was 17, she returned to Portland.
"I told my mother then I wanted to be a doctor," she says.
It was during her homecoming that she told her mother of her desire to become a doctor. Mary was 17 when she first confessed her secret ambition.
"I want to be a doctor," she told her mother. "My experiences have been different from those of most doctors. Maybe I can bring something special to medicine." It wasn't a hope or an ambition; it was a decision.
Taking up where she had left off (she had spent over four years in reform schools while the world passed her by; there was a lot to make up for!), it was not long before she found herself in the role as a single parent. Not long afterward--just three months later--Mary almost immediately found out she was pregnant with her first child.
"My parents were upset, of course," she says, "but they stood by me." The father backed out of marriage, but she kept her baby--Iris Christine.
To support herself, she first survived on welfare, then on any odd job she could find. She worked as a keypunch operator in a hospital. But nine months after Iris was born, almost before she could begin applying to colleges, Mary became pregnant again, this time with her son Christopher, but again there was no marriage. This time, her parents were furious. Yet, despite their disapproval, they took her in during the last month of her pregnancy. Mary's blood pressure had become alarmingly high, her body bloated and heavy from the excess fluid she retained.
Within 17 months, in 1968-70, she gave birth to a daughter, Iris, and a son, Christopher. She was married to neither of the children's fathers, both of whom left her. Worse, the baby's delivery and the aftermath nearly killed her. Alone, she had not received proper medical care during her second pregnancy. She was twenty-one when her second child was born.
She weighed 186 lbs at the time of his birth. It was Groundhog Day, February 2,1970, at 6:20 a.m. His delivery took less than twenty minutes. Then the nurse reported to the doctor that her blood pressure was 200/150. Quickly she had a look at her son and then, "They ran off with his limp body and I started seizing."
Due to toxemia, Mary had suffered a stroke and cardiac arrest. She also suffered what is, in medical terms, an abruption. During her son's birth, the placenta tore away from the uterus and caused bleeding between the placenta and the uterus. Not only does this result in intense pain for the mother, it can also lead to the death of the child. The statistics recorded in medical books state the survival rate for sudden debilitating strokes as being 50%. Three days later, she vaguely recalls seeing her brand-new son.
On February 5, two days after Christopher was born, skyrocketing blood pressure caused Mary to have five cardiac arrests, several seizures, and a stroke, leaving her partly paralyzed. Another month went by before she became fully aware that she really did have a son. She was hospitalized for eight months and needed to learn to walk and speak again.
For eight months, Mary remained in the hospital, confined to bed. Eight months went by before they allowed her to leave the hospital. When she was discharged, she weighed only 82 pounds, compared with the 160 when she arrived. Weak, listless, and partly paralyzed, she could barely walk without clutching the walls. The stroke had left other scars. Her mind was a blank--she couldn't read, write, or talk. She'd have to start all over again.
"I had had a stroke and was now wheelchair-bound, but this was not going to stop me. The doctors were afraid that I would remain in this chair but they did not know me. How dare they assume my life for me! Furthermore, how could they understand the inner workings of anyone?
"I just couldn't believe it," Mary says, her voice filled with exasperation. "I felt like someone was out to get me." But Mary's family wouldn't allow her to wallow in self-pity.
"You did it once," Christine Groda told her daughter. "You can do it again."
During her rehabilitation, her parents gave her their full support. Mary had to relearn how to walk and talk and all the other basic things we take for granted in life.
"They pulled me through," says Mary. "Every day, my dad would help me do exercises to strengthen my hands." Mary's father worked with her every night, encouraging her and bolstering her determination.
He patiently drilled her: "Sit up, Mary. I'm going to guide your hand to draw a square and then a circle. You're going to keep on trying until you can do it." It took weeks of work to control her hand.
Talking was equally difficult. Her words were garbled, slurred. She couldn't utter an understandable word. She seethed with frustration and impatience, but she did learn to talk.
"My brothers and sisters took turns reading to me, teaching me math, spelling, science. I had to learn to re-walk," she says. "I had to learn to re-write. I had to learn to re-talk."
She did that. It took nearly three years, but spunky Mary did regain all her mental and motor capabilities. And despite her dyslexia, she eventually reached her pre-stroke reading level. Relearning how to read and write came easier the second time around. The stroke had caused something to happen in her brain that actually improved her ability to cope with dyslexia.
It was at this time that she began to loathe references to herself as a patient. "The word alone confers a states of falsehood. I was no one's patient and I was not patient!" Bills were mounting, she had two children at home, and she knew that she was going to have to work more than one job in order to make life happen.
It was at this lowest of low points that Mary finally resolved to go for it all. Nothing, she decided, would stop her from becoming a doctor. She was still trying, still reaching for her dream, and $150,000 in debt.
Then Mary had an impossible dream--she wanted to become a doctor! After her recovery, once she could manage on her own--when able to care for herself and the children--Mary moved out of her parents' house to a rundown apartment, found a job, and set out to establish a life for herself and her children.
"I needed to get reacquainted with my kids and start a life for us together as a family." She also decided that if she were to make a better life for them, she'd have to go back to school.
"I still wanted to be a doctor--and I figured it was now or never."
In dire financial straits, Mary went on welfare. Finally, to make ends meet, she took in seven foster children. It was during this period that she started taking courses at a community college. After many sacrifices, she enrolled in college. Armed with only her determination, Mary was able to secure financial aid and a bank loan to help with her tuition. She started school again, part-time, in September, 1972. Undaunted, while working part-time at odd jobs and raising her children, she began taking courses at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. Afterwards, she worked on-and-off as a carhop, factory packer, painting contractor, keypunch operator, and later as a foster mother while saving to go to college.
She kept a grinding schedule: operating a keypunch machine from 4 a.m. until noon, attending classes in the afternoon, picking up her children in the evening, and playing with them until bedtime. Then she studied, grabbed five or six hours of sleep, and reported to work again. There was a time when Mary held three jobs concurrently.
"I was working seven days a week and missed out on many times with my children. I was just creeping through this world." She was just surviving and felt trapped.
Within months, the unrelenting weight of jobs, college, and motherhood sank Mary into a deep depression.
You're crazy if you think you're going to be a doctor, she told herself. She considered suicide, but she fought her exhaustion and loneliness.
You're not going to cop out. You're going to work and study harder, and you're going to make it!
"I was steadfastly working towards becoming a doctor, and it was important that whatever I did didn't interfere with that." She would work one year, put aside every penny she could, and attend college the next.
Two years later, at age 25, Mary met her future husband. 1974 was the year she met David Lewis. David was a journalist who had served in Vietnam.
She enrolled in a karate class at Mount Hood to improve her coordination. After a few weeks, students were asked to pick out a partner to test their skills. She chose David Lewis, the man next to her. A Vietnam vet and a journalism student, he was shy, soft-spoken, even-tempered. She liked him.
In their first round of combat, she threw him to the mat. Holding him down, she asked, "Do you wanna go out?"
She kept suggesting a date, and finally he came for dinner. When David began dating Mary, he told her of an odd experience he had had overseas. His fellow GIs had sometimes found personal notes in the rations packets.
"Just remember you are loved and cared about," said one. "Keep up your good spirits," urged another. All were signed, "Love, Mary."
Lewis told Mary that, while in Nam, he had wanted to find the mysterious note writer and write a story on how she had cheered up the troops. With a giggle, Mary told him that he had found her. What's more, Mary said, she eventually was fired from her job as a rations packer. Her supposed offense: defacing government property.
David, of course, was incredulous. He became even more so when Mary told him more about herself--that she was a dyslexic who did not read until she was 16, that she had been shot at by police and done time in reformatories, that she was the unwed mother of two, and had suffered five cardiac arrests. At first, David was confused by the pieces of personal history that Mary revealed: elementary-school dropout, her two children, cardiac arrests, a crippling stroke, and to top it all, "I'm going to become a doctor."
"And it took me five years," David says, "to figure out that whatever she told me was true."
Nevertheless, as the couple grew to know each other, they fell in love.
"He was different from any man I'd encountered," Mary says. "It was his humor, his shyness, and his caring."
Neither knew whether their feelings were strong enough to justify marriage, so to test their relationship, David took a newspaper job in White Plains, New York. After a long and painful separation, the two did marry, and Mary moved east. (By this time, she was extremely independent and residing in Ohio.) They were married in September of 1978 and moved to Yonkers, where Mr. Lewis worked. According to Mary, David was a talented news journalist on the East Coast. (They would eventually raise 12 foster children, all troubled teens when they began living with the couple.)
Shortly afterward, David got a job on a Westchester, New York, newspaper. Now nearly 29, Mary transferred to Herbert H. Lehman College in the Bronx, and the family moved to a small apartment.
"I told David I wanted to be a doctor, and I didn't want to play games," she says.
She finished her undergraduate degree in a year, finishing in the top 10 percent of the class. Two years later, she graduated from Herbert H. Lehman College and obtained her pre-med degree--a bachelor's art degree in biology.
David encouraged Mary to apply for medical school. During her senior year, she applied to 15 medical schools, and was rejected by all. She tried again the next year and reapplied, including a detailed description of her life experiences. This time, seven schools invited her to interviews. She picked the Albany Medical College of Union University as her first choice. A sympathetic Lehman professor helped her get accepted at Albany Medical College.
"I was sort of bowled over from the beginning," the dean of student affairs, Dr. Alan D. Miller, says. "This was someone who needed a shot. With a record like hers, we knew she would work hard to succeed."
When that school's letter of acceptance arrived in February, 1980, it brought tears to Mary's eyes. Maybe an elementary-school dropout and juvenile offender could dream after all. And succeed she did.
The family moved upstate to a ramshackle wooden house in Albany, New York. Mary's first year of medical school was a horror--the work was hard; she was frightened by the amount of studying and the intense competition. When dyslexia overwhelmed her, David read her textbooks to her and she tried to memorize everything. She ranked at the bottom of her freshman class and required extensive tutoring. She dreaded that a faculty member would tell her, "There's been a mistake. You don't belong here." Mary's marriage almost broke up.
Only when she failed three courses in her first year did she begin to doubt her dream. At the end of the year, she stared at her report card. She had scored unsatisfactorily in three major courses. Mary was tempted to quit.
"I was totally devastated," she says. "I was ready to quit."
"Of course, school's tough," friends told her. "But so are you." Pushed by friends and teachers, she agreed to sign up for tutoring. She made up the courses over the summer. Just before classes reopened, Mary's efforts were appraised. She had strongly upgraded her three deficiencies. It was, she says, almost easy after that.
In her clinical work, Mary shone. Faculty and fellow students soon recognized that Mary Groda-Lewis would become a top-notch physician. She was an excellent diagnostician, and patients liked this unpretentious, compassionate woman with a ready laugh. They trusted her, and frequently would ask, "Is Doctor Mary coming today?"
"She really excells at the art of medicine," Barbara A. Ostanek, one of her closest friends in medical school, says. "She has that gut intuitive sense of when a patient can be told something. She has that gift that everyone doesn't have."
Patients, Mary says, have come to fill her life.
Once, she grew concerned about a nine-year-old boy, had him tested, and learned that he had diabetes. Nurses tried to inject him with insulin, but he fought them off. They tried demonstrating with an orange; it didn't help--he knew the orange couldn't register pain.
Mary talked with him. "Sure it hurts a bit," she said. "But you've got to learn how to do it yourself." Then she rolled up her sleeve. "Here. Take the needle and gently shove it under my skin." He did. "OK," she responded. "That felt like a pinprick. B ut just for a second. Do it again. Now, one more time."
The boy did it, and thereafter, self-injections became no problem.
Brushing back her hair, traced with gray, she held a portrait of an old bearded man, his blue eyes gazing into the distance.
"This was an old Russian patient who died of cancer when I was in third year," she says. "He had no family. His face stayed with me. It's the first portrait I've painted."
While assisting a physician on his rounds, Mary met the elderly cancer patient. She made a point of visiting him three times a week--"He had to know that somebody cared about him." One night, she read his chart, and saw that he was declining rapidly.
"Doctor Mary, do you think I'm going to die?" he asked.
Softly, she said, "You know the answer as well as I do. Do you want me to stay?"
She sat and held the patient's hand until 3 a.m., when he died.
Barbara Ostanek introduced Mary to painting.
"In medical school, you wonder if there is an end to the tunnel," Barbara says. "With painting, there is an end point. You can do it any way you want. We used to stay up in my attic until 3 or 4 in the morning, just painting."
Three years after her admission, on Thursday, May 24, 1984, Mary Groda-Lewis, the woman who'd been told she "would never amount to anything," graduated with honors from medical school at age 35, the oldest woman in her class. She received four awards, including one for outstanding graduate--among them, the Alumni Association Medal and the Neil Hellman prize. Of the four awards presented to her by the school, the Neil Hellman prize celebrated her "outstanding sensitivity and commitment to humanistic values in her dealings with patients."
Perhaps it is not surprising that, on the day that Mary graduated from Albany Medical College, a story of her life ran in the New York Times Lifestyle section. The press release received by the Gazette states, "By noon that day, reporters and T.V. producers flooded the campus." Mary paraded in full academic regalia across the graduation stage. No one can know what private thoughts went through Mary's mind as she reached out to grasp this eloquent testimony to her self-belief and perseverance, her diploma that announced to all the world: Here stands on this small point of Planet Earth a person who dared to dream the impossible dream, a person who confirms for all of us our human divineness. Here stands Mary Groda Lewis, M.D.
Her family was on hand to see her earn her doctor's degree. Mary made her way up to the podium, where the dean of Albany Medical School waited to hand her a diploma. Mary tried to let nothing overshadow the pride she felt at that moment, but as she stood on the stage in front of her fellow graduates, memories of her troubled past came flooding back.
The words, "Congratulations, Doctor," brought Mary back out of her reverie. Blinking back tears, she murmured, "Thank you, God," and finally buried the ghosts of her past. It was the greatest moment of her life.
"I am a doctor," she told herself incredulously. "Nobody can take that away from me!"
Later, standing with her family outside the auditorium, Mary admitted, "Throughout medical school, I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, but we've made a mistake. You don't belong here.'"
When it came time to choose her specialty, Mary had no doubts.
"I knew I wanted to be a regular, old-fashioned family doctor," she says emphatically. In looking for a hospital for her residency in her specialty, family practice, Mary sought a city where doctors were needed. She found Youngstown, Ohio.
Her first choice for internship and residency was the Northside Medical Center's Family Practice Program in Youngstown. Dr. W. Clare Reesey, the center's director, invited her for an interview.
He had never met anyone like her.
"Mary had a terrible personal history that very few of us could have survived," he says. "Everything went wrong with her life. Yet she came out of it with dignity, a sense of purpose, and a driving desire to help others. We were so happy to have her that we would have offered her the world."
She accepted a residency at Northside Hospital in Youngstown, where she moved the week after her graduation to begin her three-year program.
"Northside's Family Practices Clinic program fit perfectly with my philosophy of treating the whole patient--not just the illness," Mary explains.
"I also feel a special bond with these people. I know what it's like to feel lonely, afraid, and insecure. When I ask patients how they're feeling, I don't just mean physically, 'where-does-it-hurt?' kind of stuff; I mean feeling--'Are you bored, depressed, sad, lonely?'"
In Youngstown, Mary settled well into her calling. The days were exhausting for Mary, up at dawn at 6 a.m. to make hospital rounds by 7, then clinic work, seminars, and more studying at night. But her enthusiasm for the profession was--and is--exhilarating and energizing. Mary quickly developed into an outstanding intern. She gave of herself totally, treating patients with concern and devotion, and still does.
Once, she was called in to fix the fractured collarbone of a woman with breast cancer. She made a point of visiting every day to chat. Several months after the patient's discharge, Mary encountered the woman's husband, and he unexpectedly embraced her.
"My wife died," he said. "But I want you to know how glad she was that she knew you."
All her colleagues--medical specialists, nurses, clerks, cleaning women--received her respect and appreciation. One nurse told her, "You're the first doctor who, when the going gets tough for us, has made up a bed, bathed a patient, or mopped up a mess on the floor. And you never make us feel that you're doing us a favor."
Despite the grind of internship and residency, Mary never forgot her own family.
Her children, Iris, then 17, and Christopher, 16, adjusted to their new home, made new friends.
"It's hard for them," Mary conceded at the time, "especially now that they're teenagers, to start making friends all over again. But they've got a lot of stamina, and I'm sure they'll do OK."
Both Iris and Christopher said their mother was always there when they needed her.
"She is very open, sensitive, and loving," says husband David, "and those must be some of the qualities that make her an outstanding doctor."
"Our life together has been increasingly romantic each and every year." She did try, a tiny bit, to suppress her pride when she said that.
David looked for work on one of the local newspapers.
"We've been in much tougher spots than this," he said at the time. "I know we'll pull through." (David eventually worked there for a newspaper.)
"There is a glow about her," Dr. Miller said when she graduated. "She is clearly someone whose energy and affection for people is going to give her the ability to make people feel comfortable, well-cared-for. She's going to be a physician that people are going to flock to."
"In evaluating interns and residents, we use some special words," explained Dr. Reesey, later, "and one of the most important is 'selflessness.' Mary personifies that word. She is one of the very best, and I feel privileged to know her."
Because she received financial help from the federal government during medical school, she knew she would have to spend four years in a part of the country where there was a shortage of doctors when she completes her residency next year. Mary intended to serve on an Indian reservation.
"I want to do it on an Indian reservation," she said, at the time. "I always felt the Indians have a lot to teach me about who I am.
"Then I want to settle down in a rural setting," she said, "where they need me." As for her emergence as a TV role model, Mary called it "an honor and an awesome responsibility."
After her residency, she set up a practice devoted to helping the poor and needy, providing more than a $100,000 worth of free health care each year. She ran a private practice for 14 years in Twin Falls, Idaho, before moving to Hawaii.
"I take care of patients from birth to death," she said. "Being a family doctor is one of the hardest roles in medicine. You can walk from one room to another and deal with totally different problems. It really takes a person who is diverse."
In her spare time, Mary enjoys making porcelain dolls, theater, needlepoint and just being in the outdoors. She has also written a book, called "Strokes of the Soul," which she is trying to get published.
"It's all about life," she said. "I talk about what it's like to be a doctor...how amazing it is to watch a woman give birth and be allowed to participate in the intimacy of the three, the mother, father and child; the feelings of holding a person's hand when they are dying and what essence that gives you."
However, David remains silent regarding this matter. His focus is on her. The respect and love they have for each other is evident. David has been Mary's business overseer and constant companion for a long time now. His presence in the doctor's office is one of quiet strength. They are a team. They have offered their homes and hearts to foster kids, and adopted twelve children over the years.
She closed her practice on April 28, 2000, five months ago, among the tears and warm embraces of her patients and colleagues. Mary and David moved here from Twin Falls, Idaho. Her new office is located behind the Riptide restaurant in Sequim. Smiling, she announced, "I think I'll like it here!"
Their residence, located on five acres in the Diamond point area, is full of crafty planters, wooden figurines, and arched bridges. A waterfall and pond are under construction. They enjoy working on these projects together. Someday Mary hopes to have a life-size dollhouse to work out of constructed in the woods on their property.
The interior of the Lewis household, decorated in country class and flights of the imagination, is like walking through every girl's childhood dream. The stairway to Mary's doll-making area, wrapped with a continuing topiary of faeries, moss, and fern beckons you further.
Upstairs, she shares a current project with us. She has enjoyed researching the story of the Orphan Trains. There are actual photographs of a few of the children on one of these trains. The 1890's saw scads of children taken from the east coast to the west. Once here, people adopted them. Some people used the kids as slave laborers. The doll heads Mary holds are close representations of a brother and sister that came west on an Orphan Train. She shares her affection for the two real children of long ago. What were their lives like? Who did they grow up to be?
The sky is gray. We walk along side of each other, through the woods. The forest is still. Conversations are quiet. Why, when many doctors are leaving our area, did she decide to come?
"I was so frustrated where I was at. It was politics, not the people. You should not let politics get in the way of caring for people, but it does. It really does, no matter how hard you try not to let it."
She stops for a moment and looks up at the now partially clear sky. A blue jay caws in the distance. "So, I just got to the point that I did not want to do it any more." There is an audible sigh of old depression.
We continue to meander up the hill. "Which was likely the hand of God working."
We arrive at the lake. The air is still. The golds and oranges of dormant grasses and wild rose bushes add contrast to the blue sky and pink clouds reflected in the waters glassy surface. The participants acknowledge gladness for the gift of life.
Mary mirrors the mood. "If you look at what nature has to give you, there is a miracle of life around each and every corner. It is a miracle just to wake up and say, `Heck, I´ve got a new day to explore this world, to better understand it." She turns around, animated. "How am I going to say this day was better than yesterday?"
Traipsing through marsh heather and a patchwork of sleeping dock, she whispers, "Too bad there is not an MRI to reveal the strokes of the soul. These strokes are more important to the spirit and essence of a person than the physical strokes. If only we had a magic test to reveal the damage done to a soul as a person grows and matures."
Both of us breathe deep and take in the moment. You can share solitude.
"It gave me the chance I needed to help take care of my father in the way that he deserved as a human being. It gave us that time we needed as a family." The past five-and-a-half years, Mary spent caring for her father who recently passed away.
The ground beside the water, littered with bullet casings, saddens her. She asks her hiking companion if she has ever seen a victim of a shooting. The casings seem to represent the finality of death. She has been a physician in times of disaster. She looks at the outlying country but what she sees are faces of the past. There are times when the only thing you can do is be there.
An eagle soars around the lake, adding an ancient dignity to the scene. Mary sees it, sighs, and smiles. "Change is a moment of creativity that allows the soul to grow. We need to have change in our lives or we become stagnant. I am not one to become stagnant!"
The evening begins to expand and we turn to go.
Would it surprise you to know that she has been out of medical school for fifteen years, and she still owes 10 more years on her school loan? Clallam County is one of the few areas in the U.S. that does not support its physicians. Mary and David have invested everything they have into the medical practice here.
We stop for a minute to explore weeds along the path. "In this community, doctors get about 30 cents on the dollar for taking care of Medicare patients. I'm not sure how many businesses in the U.S. could survive on those numbers."
There are some tracks in the mud. She learns how to tell the difference between dog and cougar.
She moved to our area for the same reasons many of us are here. The Olympic Peninsula is a place that lends itself to healing. The combination of nature and people contribute to accomplish this.
We can hear the hum of Highway 101. Our gait slows as we near the car. There is no real hurry to get in. Something holds us back, words yet unspoken. Twilight hushes the surrounding forest. Softly, Mary asks her hiking partner if she has a best friend here.
She is now a family practitioner at Mililani Family Clinic and is on the staff at Wahiawa General Hospital.
"I wanted to expand my social base and start to understand other cultures," she said. "Hawaii seemed the place to do this. When the opportunity came to work here, especially in Wahiawa, where the sense of community is strong, I jumped at the chance.
Mary believes students with undiagnosed dyslexia are too often classified as attentive deficient/behavioral disorders and given prescriptions of Ritalin. "We as a society find it easier to snow somebody with medicine instead of finding out why they're depressed," she said, noting that Albert Einstein was dyslexic.
People with dyslexia do not see written words or numbers the same way, Mary said.
"I try to block out one eye now so I don't have visual block when I read," she said. "When I was having trouble reading, I was seeing some things upside-down. As a child you don't know that you're seeing things differently from everyone else. I could look at the letters ABC and see the (first two letters) like everyone else. But the 'c' for me would be inverted.
"It took a long time to go from the way I see it to the way everyone else sees it."
Mary moved from Twin Falls, Idaho, to Hawaii "to learn more about cultural differences and uniqueness of nationalities that I wasn't getting on the Mainland."
"I also wanted to bring to the people here a different perspective of heath care," she said. "Mililani gives me the opportunity to do it."
She is in the process of writing her own story. It is about time, seems everyone else already has! She has much more to share. A writer who has grown close to her is lucky enough to have read her rough draft. Someday, readers will be able to see parts of themselves illuminated in her writing. One thing that makes her so special is her courage to have people know her for who she really is. The story she writes deals with the hidden things of the soul, naturally.
Mary has written a book, "Strokes of the Soul," which she hopes to have published. It is not an autobiography, but "medicine from a perspective" of where she has come from, Mary said.
"Modern medicine has become so technical. We have major machines to show us the minute strokes of the brain. But we have nothing to show strokes of the soul, and it's the strokes of the soul that we need to pay more attention to.
"I have no hesitation to hug, hold hands or sit quietly with (my patients)," Mary said. "I was working in ER once when a woman brought in her 15-month-old child who had liver tumors. The child was really sick. I was admitting the child for another doctor when the mother left the room and went outside to take a break.
"I went outside, put my arms around her and said, 'It must be hard for you to go through this.' She told me later it was the first time a doctor had ever acknowledged what she, too, was going through. What I needed to say to people in the book is have an open mind and heart and explore the most intense gift you have, which is life."
"One of the hardest lessons in life is to learn to like yourself," she says in reflection. "It took me a long time to learn to love being me."
What is the secret of such achievement?
Author Irving Stone provides a clue. He write biographies of such persons as Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin.
He was asked if he had found a common thread in the lives of such exceptional people. He answers: "I write about people who sometime in their life, have a vision or dream of something that should be accomplished...and they go to work in spite of all consequences. They are often beaten over the head, vilified, and for years get nowhere. But every time they're knocked down they stand up. You cannot destroy these people. And at the end of their lives they've accomplished some modest part of what they set out to do."
Biographies can reveal the secrets of how and why persons succeed. The humorist, Franklin P. Jones observed: "Anyone who profits from the experience of others probably writes biographies."
A Bulgarian proverb says: "We learn to walk by stumbling." So, anytime we get into a "poor me" syndrome--feeling life is treating us harshly, why not get back to work determining to follow our own dream, remembering Mary Groda-Lewis that 16-year-old teen in a reformatory who couldn't read or write, yet persisted in becoming a doctor.
Care about this precious woman. She is ours to cherish now. Yes, she couldn't read, was sent to a reformatory, became a single parent, and lived on welfare, but all along Mary knew she wasn't an acorn, but a tree. So, armed with her compass and map, she reached her dream and made a difference in the lives of all those she touched. Can't we do the same?
"There's nothing you can't accomplish if you put your mind to it," Mary announces with conviction, "and if anyone can say that, I can."
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