This morning, I made a presentation to the chiefs and chairs at Temple University Hospital, trying to explain to them what I hope to do as director of narrative medicine, the culture of stories I hope to create at Temple Hospital and the Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
Maybe I should have just told them the story of Nellie. What better way to convey the power of stories to heal, to lift people up, to provide dignity to even the frailest among us.
I got a call this morning from her mother, telling me Nellie had died peacefully.
Years ago, for the Inquirer, I wrote a long profile of the Rev. Elinor S. Greene _ Nellie to all who knew her. Nellie was like Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. She lived in Chestnut Hill, attending boarding school, was beautiful and full of life and beloved with a million suitors, with a radiant smile and lively mind and irrepressible spirit and generous heart. She earned letters in five varsity sports in high school and was president of the service club and sang like an angel. On her way to Hampshire College in the 70s, she had been to a dance the night before, was asleep in the back seat, and her mother, attempting to change lanes on the highway, suddenly changed her mind, swerved back, and lost control of the car. Nellie at 18 was thrown. She suffered extensive brain damage, ruptured both lungs and her heart stopped twice on the operating table. But she not only survived, she persevered. After three years of rehabilitation, she went back to Hampshire College and graduated in four years, and then attended Yale Divinity School, where she was ordained a deacon.
Serving God became her salvation, changing her life from one of misery to one of joy. But over the years, her physical abilities continued to deteriorate, and her body became a tomb to her irrepressible mind. As the years went by, she lost her speech, and her ability to walk or even stand, or swallow. She was too weak to blow out a candle, and was utterly dependent on others. She lived in a nursing home room at Cathedral Village. I met Nellie one day in 2004 at the Rocky Steps of the Philly Museum of Art, while working with Tom Gralish, who took this photo, on our book, Rocky Stories. Friends had brought Nellie there, in her wheel chair, for her to pose for her annual Christmas card photo. “Rocky wishes he could have had the strength, the inner strength, of Nellie Greene,” said one of her companions.
I included Nellie in our Rocky book, but I wanted to write a longer story, a profile, and did in 2007. I will never forget watching Nellie in that nursing home room type a sermon. Her vision was blurry and her hand would shake horribly. With an impossibly shaky index finger she’d move slowly across the keyboard to strike a key, but invariably she’d strike the wrong one, and then slowly move that shaky hand back across the keyboard to hit backspace, and try again. It would literally take her four or five tries to strike the right letter _ letter after letter. It would take her five weeks, a grueling, exhausting marathon, to type 2000 words. But it was through these sermons that her clever mind and soaring spirit could connect with the outside world. A parishioner would read them to the congregation on Sunday mornings.
Gradually Nellie declined further, and became entirely a prisoner in her own body, unable to communicate at all. And to those who didn’t know her, a stranger, and worse, someone without a story.
Nellie’s mother this morning left me this voicemail:
“Nellie died last night. Peacefully. You know, your article in the paper has done so much good for her because we pinned it up in her bathroom, and the nurses could know what she had done. Because you see they had no idea what Nellie had done or anything.”
Here is a link to my story on Nellie from years ago, and below that a link to my stories so far at Temple.