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Jensen column: The kindness of strangers

Many times in my five decades of life, I have been on the receiving end of wonderful kindness from complete strangers, which impacted my life profoundly. I imagine these people have no idea how often and fondly I recall their good deeds, and how their spontaneous acts of charity comfort and inspire me to this day. Here are just a few of my favorite such memories:
When I was 12, my single parent mom was living with us in a small, two family home in an Archie Bunker neighborhood in Queens, NY. We were barely making it. A doctor came by asking to rent the downstairs apartment. He was head and shoulders more educated and affluent than anyone in our neighborhood, and he was African American. At that time, there was still unspoken segregation in various New York neighborhoods, and it was hard for people of darker pigmented skin to find safe, decent housing. My mom was delighted to rent to this man, who later came by to sign the lease with his very blond, light-skinned wife.
Neighbors called, threatening to burn our house down if we rented to someone of high melanin content skin tone, least of all one married to someone with very little melanin in their skin. Very nasty, threatening things were said. My mother, who had been in Montgomery, Ala., during Martin Luther King’s bus strike and who was very supportive of civil rights, was horrified. She wanted to stand up to our neighbors’ prejudices but was also overwhelmed and scared, a single mom with no health insurance and a handicapped child, her home being her only asset.
While the doctor was there, neighbors knocked on the door, threatening. The doctor, who had obviously been shut out of many decent apartments for this exact reason before, let my mother know that he would take her to court and get the NAACP involved if she did not rent to him. My mother began to cry, apologizing for the prejudice of our neighbors.
The doctor paused and looked around. He saw the threadbare furniture. He realized this was a single, struggling mother at the end of her tether. He said, with great compassion, “I withdraw my application.”
I cannot recount this story without crying. Many times, his great kindness in the face of extremely unfair prejudice, has inspired my better side to rise to the occasion.
When I applied to medical school, I had to get an “interview outfit.” My fashion sense was nil (years later, I was on the show “Fashion Emergency”) and almost everything I owned was from a thrift store.
Off I went to Loehmann’s, a store that carried high-end merchandise at good prices. The dressing area was one big room. I noticed three fabulously coiffed ladies in their early sixties, trying on clothes like the shopping pros they clearly were. Their accessories ó from earrings to scarves to pins on their coats, were impeccable ó not too much and not too little. They reminded me of Barbara Walters in their elegance.
I had already spent enough hours trying on clothes unsuccessfully that I knew I would never pull a good outfit together on my own. I approached them and told them my problem: I needed a classy outfit for medical school interviews. They were delighted to help ń and did much more than select a few things at Loehmanns. They spent a very long day taking me from store to store for just the right belt, blouse, shoes, overcoat ń the works. All for a complete stranger.
The people on the front lines in hospitals ń the valet parking people, cafeteria people, etc., are often the folks sick people interface with initially and most frequently. I am struck over and over by how often these positions are filled by exceptionally nice and supportive people who smooth things over for the very sick people who pass their way daily. There is one cafeteria worker at my medical school who would watch me studying into all hours by the coffee machine. She would offer prayers for my success in school ó how comforting that was!
When our daughter was born very prematurely, the local video store guy, who did not know us at all, took it upon himself to select funny, relaxing movies which he would lend us every Saturday night at no charge. It was the only evening we spent away from the hospital, trying to rejuvenate ourselves a bit. His concern and kindness never failed to put me in a good mood.
Our daughter needed constant blood transfusions and neighbors we did not know formed a group to get everyone in the area tested for type O, CMV negative blood. My breast milk was kept frozen in many freezers throughout our town, in the homes of people we had never met. Knowing that not just our families, but everyone around us was throwing their support to us, kept us going even when things looked very bleak for Jessica.
I met a woman online named Suzanne Levangie-Kuritz, whose own son, then 7 years old, had been born as early as Jessica and had survived completely intact. She wrote to me daily, sent Christmas and birthday gifts for Jessica, and guided me expertly through the many issues we faced in the hospital and after Jessica’s release. Most importantly, she sent me photos and updates on her son John Henry ń his academic , athletic and Boy Scout accomplishments. This was so inspiring. She still sends them to me and I feel tremendous pride in his achievements and the deepest of affection for John Henry, Suzanne and their entire family. Suzanne said she continues her work with parents of micro preemies because it creates good karma. I hope indeed that very wonderful things are in store for John Henry and family.
We can all celebrate the unexpected gifts of kindness we have received, especially from total strangers, by passing it on. In this sweet little town of Salisbury, not a day goes by without my being the recipient of a gratuitous act of kindness ó whether it is the car behind me who doesn’t honk when I fail to see the light turn green, or the person on line in the grocery store who offers a coupon or the lady who patiently holds the door open at a store as we approach.
Studies show that an attitude of gratitude is the mental state most closely linked with good health. I believe it! If we could dismiss rude behavior from our minds, and quickly replace that negativity with memories of gratuitous acts of kindness, we would all be in a better mood (and health) each day.
I will end with two of my favorite quotes:
“It is one of the great compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”
ó Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The heart that gives, gathers.”
ó Marianne Moore
Dr. Susan Jensen works in Rehabilitation Medicine Service at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner V.A. Medical Center.

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