If you were wondering whether or not I had dropped off the face of the earth for the last six weeks, you guessed right. October of 2014 was a month that, along with September 2001, I would love to utterly erase from my memory.
My mother, who had been so courageously battling cancer for the last five years, lost the battle on October 17, 2014. Despite a contractor catching my house on fire and a kidney stone suddenly showing up, I was able to get to Bristol, VA and be with my mom before her passing. I remained in Bristol to support my dad and help with all of the funeral arrangements. After the funeral, I packed their house up and moved dad up to Fredericksburg, VA with my family.
As I reflected on my mom’s life and lessons, there were a few in particular that I find relevant to the work I do today, particularly in the area of compliance and ethics. My mom was raised in a second generation Italian family in extreme poverty in New Orleans. I recall hearing stories of how she slept together with her sister and brother in a small room where they had to take turns staying awake to keep the rats off of them.
Despite the obstacles, mom appreciated the value of hard & honest work, education, and selfless service. Working various jobs, she put herself through nursing school and began what became a forty-one year long career as a nurse. Mom’s nursing accomplishments were of no comparison with Nobel Prize winners and will never be remembered outside of the small circles of those whom they affected, but they are nonetheless as profound and meaningful, both to those affected and to those who might see in her life and work the impact and role of a positive high ethical tone and commitment to always doing what was right and in the best interests of her “customers” – her patients.
My mom always stressed the importance of honesty and showed me the benefits of it every time I owned up to something I did wrong as a child. As long as I was honest about my mistakes, the punishment was appropriately reduced. Thank God – or I would still be in “time-out” some forty years later! That is a lesson I have carried all my life and am trying hard to pass on to my children, as well as those with whom I work.
Positive ethical tone within an organization begins with honesty. And ends with dishonesty.
An effective compliance & ethics program will include on-going education and training. While my mom worked hard to put herself through school to become a nurse, she never stopped her education there. Over the course of her career as a nurse, she took on many new challenges/specialties, some of which she did pioneering work in. The lesson is that education never stops. We never stop learning and we always have room to learn more, regardless of where we are now in our lives and careers. Compliance training IS on-going education. It is not checking a box.
Being a nurse is among the most altruistic jobs one might have. Caring for those who, in many instances, can’t care for themselves. Helping them with the most humbling and/or simple tasks – many tasks that even family might shy away from. Not losing sight of their human dignity and treating them with respect, even as they lost respect for themselves. My mom was always a champion of the patients, even when being so was not always in the financial best interests of the hospital or kindly looked upon by her superiors. As best as I know, mom never had to deal with any “corporate” fraud issues as a nurse/employee, but she certainly had her share of ethical issues. Sometimes described as a “firecracker” when it came to advocating for her patients, I am sure mom upset her share of hospital superiors of lesser ethical constitution over the years.
It’s a great lesson for us. By placing greater value on what we do and doing things right (rather than on where our stock price is), we find a more fulfilling and long-lasting success. When someone acts unethically or engages in some sort of misconduct, we have to speak up – until somebody listens.
I recall with both joy and sadness a little boy named Stephen, who was a cancer patient under my mom’s care in a pediatric intensive care unit. I was living far away at the time, working as an FBI Agent. In caring for Stephen, my mom had learned that he had dreamed of one day becoming an FBI Agent and so she asked that I might visit him when I next came to town – in fact, she made certain to remind me of it MANY times as I planned my next visit!
When I got to town, my mom made sure that the hospital was my very first stop. She also insisted that I wear a suit – my official FBI Agent “uniform.” After Stephen’s chemo treatment(s) that day, she rolled him in a wheelchair to a private little waiting area where she had asked me to wait. Stephen was probably about ten years old and his cancer was terminal – in its latest stage. It was obvious that this child had suffered much and long, and was still in pain. He didn’t have a single hair on his head and maybe weighed forty pounds in all his clothes. Yet when my mom introduced me as her FBI Agent son, he lit up like a Christmas tree. My mom and Stephen’s mom left briefly, so that we could have our “top secret debriefing.” I let him hold by badge and credentials, let him see my handcuffs and the gun holstered on my hip, and answered every question he could muster the strength to ask – and many that I knew he would ask if he could.
When our time was over, I gave Stephen an official FBI t-shirt, a junior FBI Agent badge, some FBI pens, and other little things that I can’t even remember – though they meant the world to him. I learned a couple months later that Stephen had passed and that he had specifically requested that he be buried in that FBI t-shirt that I gave him. To this day I can’t think about that without tearing up.
This is just one example of how my mom took the time to listen to her “customers” and to appropriately do more for them than what just her job required. She got no honors, medals, promotions, mentions or bonuses for this – and that was fine by her. The joy brought to Stephen was priceless.
I’ll miss you mom. Thanks for all you did for me and for everyone you touched. I hope I can pass on the lessons I learned from you to my children as well as you passed them on to me. I also hope that I might follow your example(s) with the same humble obscurity as you sought and that I might touch just one tenth of the number of lives that you did.
Tell Stephen hello for me.