Why public health and safety is my passion.
On a freezing cold day on the north shore of Massachusetts, as a junior at Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody, I stood up from my desk in the middle of class in the tiny classroom reserved for the tiny number of students registered for a class called, “Death and Dying.” I exhaled, and walked to the front and out of class. The irony of being enrolled in this class at this moment in my life washed over me. Cringing at the details of embalming, I asked myself why I had ever returned to this class at all. Not three weeks before, my father had died after an arduous week trying to live, and trying to heal, at Mass General.
As a telephone line technician, one day at work in Lynn, Massachusetts, he fell from the bucket of his truck. He fell 15 feet, and landed in the worst possible way: head first. And then the "Perham Family’s Lives Changed Forever" was the new title of our book.
After a bunch of days of improvements, during one overnight, things turned for the worse: pressure in the brain led to emergency brain surgery, then talks of “being a vegetable” and “removing life support.” And hours later, I found myself with a Valentine’s Day card for him in-hand, learning my father would die, on February 13, 1997.
This was how this week would end? Wind being sucked out. The brightest, sterile lights. The contrasting black and white tile floor. The horrifying heaviness in my body and imagining, wanting, my feet and body to sink through all the floors of the hospital below me. Everyone’s guttural emotions from their positions holding hands in a circle around my beloved father’s bed.
Then, saying goodbye. Laying my head on his chest, the chest of a body being kept alive, the wires and scratchy white hospital fabric against my face and smelling of bleach. Hearing his heart and feeling his chest rising and falling, but focusing on the heart and taking it in. This was my first experience of mindfulness: focusing on remembering the sound and feel of his beating heart (a heart that went on to another living soul to try at this physical life again). This mindfulness task was for my survival, for a mind viciously shoved into survival mode.
Waking up. “It’s still true,” I would say to myself, for months. And the image of him lying in his casket in the funeral home-and lying in his casket underground-would always be there.
Why Did This Happen?
I would like to think my father’s death contributed to a shift in the culture of safety at Nynex, later Verizon, and its health and safety policies. I have never actually asked.
So now it’s almost twenty years later, and on an almost daily basis, as I drive to work, I see the line technicians, fathers of children, working up high in the buckets. I am reminded of him falling, and that impossible week ending with his death. I am reminded that he was not wearing his safety harness. I am reminded that the broken door to the bucket on his truck was not fixed, despite his repeated requests to have it fixed. I’m reminded how preventable it all was.
I learned then that I will need to be my own advocate for my own safety, and refuse to live or work in an unsafe environment, even if it (at best) makes me appear uptight or (at worst) costs me my job. After all, lack of safety cost my father his life. I will do everything I can to prevent that. And now, with two beautiful children of my own, after that formative life experience, I am unabashed about my and my children’s safety in all domains. For example, their car seats are installed precisely and correctly. And there are the seemingly nit-picking instructions I give to anyone other than me putting them in the seat: make sure there’s enough space between the baby’s rear facing seat and the front seat; no puffy jackets in the car; and always do the “pinch test” on the straps (they should be tight enough such that pinching the strap’s fabric across the width of the strap isn’t possible). You see, these “nit-picky” instructions matter. If they are compromised, that negates the seat being correctly installed. And if the safety of the seat is compromised, the risks of injury and death in a crash increase dramatically. Whereas if the rules are followed - ALL the rules are followed - and the safety of the seat is not compromised, all points of safety across all domains are maintained and we’ve done everything we can to prevent massive injury and death.
It is part of my ‘being’ to work very hard to prevent what’s preventable. I did not want to consider the safety of my children’s car seats after a crash. If this level of scrutiny for safety seems daunting, that’s perfectly ok. It’s not daunting to me. It’s part of my fabric. It’s not work; it’s woven into my heart and head and legs and arms. It’s why I went back to study public health. And it’s why I am very good at seeing the risks and, more importantly, seeing the solutions.
There is no ego in my effort to reduce the chemical exposures and safety hazards in our lives. I’m just doing what I was shaped into doing by my life experiences. It’s true that there are a daunting number of risks in products, in methods we use, and there are hazards for small children all around. In many cases, we can control those risks. So why not control what we can control and try to prevent what’s preventable? There are positive steps to be taken if we mindfully evaluate all the risks.
Trying to prevent disease and injury comes naturally to me, and it translates into the silver lining of what happened to my father. So, with the memory and sound of my father’s heartbeat softly in the back of my mind, I move forward, hopeful, in this new adventure.