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The Mayo Clinic, arguably the best hospital system in the world, is headquartered in the small town of Rochester, Minnesota, where my parents lived with my younger siblings after I left home.
After having six kids over 20 years, my mom finally got all the kids in school and went back to college. She was never more proud of herself than when she completed her Associate’s Degree in medical transcription at the local community college.
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With her degree in hand, she applied for and landed a job at Mayo. She was assigned the preparation of death certificates. All day. Every day. She typed up doctors’ notes and recordings about how patients died before their time.
She cried every day. Mom loved to cry, so maybe it was the perfect job for her. If she wasn’t crying, she was worrying about something that, if it happened, would make her cry.
Here’s the thing. Mom’s only lens into the Mayo Clinic was a figurative peephole into the morgue. Her perception of Mayo seemed to be that it was where very sick people came for treatment until they died.
Here are the facts—almost 99 percent of people treated at the Mayo Clinic live. About 88 percent of people in the ICU there survive. Mom’s job was to type up the records for the exceptions, but her view was distorted by her unique and depressing role.
Even in the cases where patients did die at her hospital, it was only after being treated by the best doctors, using the latest technology and every possible course of treatment. People came to little Rochester, Minnesota, from around the world to receive care.
Many of us in the Superpowers for Good community are a bit like my mother. We are engaged in doing good, solving problems and making the world a better place. But our day-to-day work has us staring in the face of the problem.
Those working on climate change, for instance, can’t be blamed for noting that time to avoid or prevent the effects of climate change resulting from temperatures increasing more than 1.5 degrees is quickly running out. The effects we’re already feeling have been devastating to millions.
As a result, environmentalists and climate activists rarely have an opportunity to celebrate. But there is good news. Over the past five decades, as lifestyles have on average improved dramatically around the world, carbon use per person has remained relatively flat.
In developed countries, we are becoming more efficient as people in developing countries generate more carbon, building more affluent lives. If the world were simply becoming more like the United States in the 1970s, we’d be toast already. We are making progress.
Part of that progress is due to the scientists, activists, environmentalists and others who work every day to improve things. They are working on problems that have taken centuries to create and will take generations to solve. In that context, marking daily and weekly progress is difficult. It’s a bit like typing up death certificates at the best hospital in the world.
If you’re working to eliminate poverty and improve social justice, the feelings can be ever more acute. There are billions of people worldwide suffering all manner of ill effects of poverty and injustice. Nearly a billion live in extreme poverty and lack access to clean water. Billions live without access to a toilet.
Working in that world puts changemakers constantly in touch with people whose lives are challenging beyond Western comprehension.
That said, when I was born, more than half the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today the proportion is under 10 percent. The absolute number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half even as the world’s population has nearly tripled. Things are getting better.
Things are getting better because, over decades, good people have done good things to make a difference. However, as long as one refugee lives in extreme poverty, it is too soon to celebrate. The work feels like typing death certificates at the world’s best hospital.
Those working in public health, from routine immunizations to polio and COVID, are having a rough go. Anti-vaccination movements are killing people. COVID distracted resources from almost every other public health initiative. The only silver lining was that COVID isolation prevented the spread of some other infectious diseases. It was a thin silver lining as deaths of despair, especially related to gun violence and opioids, increased.
Still, progress is dramatic. During the 1918 pandemic, it was well understood that the world needed a vaccine for the influenza virus. To be clear, the flu we get every year is the flu that caused that pandemic; it was just a much deadlier variant, especially to young people who hadn’t been exposed to as many iterations of the flu.
Scientists developed the first effective flu vaccine 24 years after the 1918 pandemic. In under a year from the first U.S. case, Sandra Lindsey got the first COVID shot in the U.S.
We can now imagine a world in which we could develop a vaccine before a virus begins to spread globally. Things are getting better because brilliant people work with their heads down every day to make them better. But doing the work often feels like typing death certificates at the Mayo Clinic.
You are part of a community of people changing the world for good. Chances are that you sometimes feel like my mom did typing up death certificates. When you feel that way, please take a step back to see your work in context. You make a difference. You change the world. You matter. Thank heaven for you!