My recently published book, Keep Your Fork; Something Sweet is Coming, is about finding joy and meaning after a major life challenge. I would like to focus my post on highlighting real-life examples of people who have discovered a new purpose after life handed them a lemon.
My first incredible story is the amazing, life-changing journey of Lee Tomlinson, affectionately known by his audiences as “Patient Lee”. His difficult path has led him to become a world-class inspirational speaker and author. He is the founder and “chief inspirer” of The Compassion Heals Movement, author of Compassion Heals; From Self-Care to Healthcare, and host of a podcast by the same name.
Lee is also in the process of executive producing a feature-length documentary, revealing a crisis threatening all of us, including healthcare professionals, caused by the rapid disappearance of the immense, scientifically proven, life-saving power of compassion. It’s titled Compassion Heals. You. Me. The World.
Let me begin with Lee’s story. It has not been an easy one from the very beginning. When he was just five years old, believing he was the son of Superman, Lee was convinced he could fly. To prove it, goaded on by his older sister, he dove off the second-story staircase of his childhood home. Sadly, he woke up the next morning encased in a full-body cast with a broken clavicle and severe concussion.
Since then, he’s had a compound fracture of his left arm and broken more than a dozen bones, some as many as three times. He’s had numerous infections, including pneumonia and spinal meningitis, and two near-fatal motorcycle accidents. He’s been rescued off the top of a mountain, as well as from nearly drowning in the Dead Sea after being knocked unconscious diving from his vacation vessel.
Lee has also had his thumb pulled off, his toe amputated, and numerous skin and bone grafts. In his book, the list goes on.
Because of his remarkable ability to discover courage and overcome his challenges, Lee eventually became a movie studio executive and owner. As an award-winning television producer, he raised tens of millions of dollars for major charities, The American Film Institute and The U.S. Olympic Committee. He became the perfect example of the Hollywood dream.
But then, once again, his life began to crumble. His business partners were caught embezzling funds from the purchase and operation of the famed Culver Studios and the development of Albuquerque Studios in New Mexico. After four years of legal battles, both of which he won, the crash of 2008 left him with nothing and heavily in debt. It was by far the lowest point of his life, which was multiplied by a sudden diagnosis during a routine doctor check-up. He was told he had advanced, Stage 3-4 throat cancer.
This incredible achiever had been a mountain climber, marathon runner, professional athlete, and thrill seeker. He never drank and never smoked. Yet here he sat with advanced cancer, convinced this was the end. When he asked the doctor if he was going to die as a result of his diagnosis, she reached out, put her hand on his arm, and softly, with a kind smile on her face compassionately said, “Yes, but hopefully not from this.”
He began a horrifying year of excruciating radiation and chemotherapy. He couldn’t muster the energy to even get out of bed. He stopped eating and lost 60 pounds. Unable to speak, swallow, or work, he decided he couldn’t bear the misery of his treatment and began seriously contemplating how many fentanyl patches he needed to quickly end his life. Fortunately, he decided to ask that intensely private question to a trustworthy doctor, who was also his brother-in-law. Ironically, that question and the answer reversed and saved his life.
The doctor, a deeply caring and compassionate professional, first apologized for the "compassion” he said Lee hadn’t gotten during his hospital stay. Then he kindly asked permission to make a suggestion.
Bringing Back Compassion
He told Lee, “You’ve been nothing less than a perpetual patient. You know compassionate patient care, and its opposite, better than anyone. You’re also a customer service expert, and on a business level, patient care is customer service. You’re a terrific communicator, and if you survive and can speak, people will listen to you and what you’ve learned. Instead of giving up, how about you fight and live? How about you start a movement and spend the rest of your life doing something to reverse this disappearance of compassion that you experienced which has become an epidemic in American medicine today?”
Those simple words saved him and completely reversed Lee’s direction in life. He’s certain that moment, that one simple, loving moment, brought him back to life. It gave him meaning and purpose again. He felt understood. He felt seen, heard, respected, and comforted. He felt compassion. And thus was born the Compassion Heals Movement.
In his hundreds of keynote speeches since then, Lee describes the way that the universe eventually reversed his life “from burnout and cancer back to brilliance.” He began to focus on the many areas of healthcare that experience burnout in different ways.
It’s not just patients like him, but also healthcare professionals: “Speaking to healthcare professionals around the world has been a joyful, deeply cathartic, and healing process for me,” he said. He learned that the ability and drive to express one’s innate compassion begins with personal self-care.
"Self-care is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Endlessly caring for others without taking care of oneself to stay healthy and happy, is a disaster for patients and others in your life. You can’t give what you haven’t got."
He also teaches that compassion is contagious. We get what we give. There is no limit to the amount of love that can be received by giving love to others when they most need it.
And, the benefits don’t stop there, he explains.
Fostering a compassionate work environment benefits patients and providers alike: Medical institutions that make compassionate, patient-centered care a top priority for patients and the healthcare professionals who treat them, have lower turnover, higher patient retention, fewer medical errors, increased employee productivity, and a more profitable bottom line. There’s no downside.
Lee is proud and grateful for his new life, given to him in such a tragic manner. He believes that cancer revealed his true life purpose and showed him why he was put on this earth: “I get to share my compassionate knowledge and deep gratitude to healthcare professionals who have regularly repaired my body and saved my life more times than I can remember. And yes, I believe that to do that, God allowed me to get cancer.”
He adds, “I get to devote myself full-time to helping heal the healthcare professionals who heal people. I get to play golf all over the world with people of all races, cultures, and creeds when I speak to them. I get to have the joy, at my age, of spending time with fellow cancer survivors, celebrating the simple joys of life. What a blessing. An honor beyond my wildest imagination. And my job? I get to tell stories. How cool is that?”