Famous Doctor Opens Doors to the Heart
By Leneé Cobb
First published 2001 in the Sequim Gazette
Although I interviewed Dr. Mary years ago, she remains in my heart and continues to inspire so many people, people she’s met, people she never will.
This morning, unbeknown to you, Mary Groda Lewis woke up wondering, “Who am I going to meet today? Who will I get to explore this world with?”
The doors are now open to her practice as a family physician. Her office is located behind the Riptide restaurant in Sequim. Mary and her husband, David, moved here five months ago from Twin Falls, Idaho. Smiling she announces, “I think I’ll like it here!”
You may have read about her in Reader’s Digest; or watched T.V. and seen her on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” or “Good Morning America.” Even if you have not, she is one of those rare persons who, when you meet, it feels like you have known forever. Actress Kristy McNichol memorialized her inspiring life in a made for T.V. movie, “Love Mary” in 1984. The film dealt with Mary as she overcame dyslexia, a massive stroke during the birth of her second child, and the difficulties she encountered in attaining her medical degree.
There is an impressive list of honors earned in her medical career. The distinguished awards she has received attest to her integrity. Rest assured, celebrity status does not faze the down to earth heart of Mary. She is too real for that. She chose to settle down in Sequim, after all.
The humble home (behind Riptide) with all the dolls displayed in the windows is her office. Go ahead and walk up to view the window exhibit; it is all right. Take a while to study the dolls and you will see how expressive they are. Their maker has a keen sensitivity about the human spirit. Mary made them. Note the remarkably fine details of the dolls clothing. Their intricate needlework is fascinating. The same hands that fashioned these dolls heal people.
Walk into the office and you will see that this place continues to be different. A small atrium adjoins the waiting room. A delicate waterfall trickles in its’ corner, surrounded by a bevy of various flora and fantasy. The whole place seems to release peace. Surprisingly, it is possible to want to wait in a doctor’s office.
Clearly, Mary loves kids. “You really get attached to kids in your care. You get lucky enough to meet some vivacious children. Every person is so unique. There has never been a person like you and there never will be!”
She is a small, soft-spoken woman that would rather you call her Mary and forget the “D” word. She feels strongly that the title, doctor, tends to isolate physicians from their patients. On the other hand, when speaking about patients she chuckles, “The vast majority of the time that is indeed what they are! They are patient people!” She does not like not like calling the people she sees patients. “Rather, they are my friends that I see.” She has a lot of experience as a patient. She recalls hearing medical practitioners say things like, ‘The patient with pneumonia’. “This allows the pneumonia to be the important contribution and not the person. If only we could understand the wholeness of the person first and then extend into the problem that person is encountering! For these are persons that need my care and I need their care.” It grieves her deeply when schools teach medicine as a means to preserve one’s life style, instead of a life’s profession.
Her philosophy as a physician is this; “There are times in medicine that I control the situation. Let us say that you come in here in a coma; you cannot talk to me. Well, you would not want me not to take control of the situation and figure out what is going on. That is part of the agreement that we make as patient / doctor. That is very rare. In my opinion, the majority of the time, the relationship should be a more intra-dependent one. And, if I don’t take time to listen to what your beliefs are, what your ideas are, what your desires are, and explore that with you then I can isolate both of us very easily.”
Mary is a skilled conservationist, with the ability of explaining medicine in an easy to understand way. She has a knack for extracting pertinent information about you and remembering it later. (Reporters are no exception.) It is her hope that people who see her will come away more educated and because of that, in more control of their situation.
The interview takes an unexpected turn when, asked about her childhood, she allows to you to glimpse her vulnerability. She almost whispers. “I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was ten years old but I never thought it would be possible because I was stupid. I was ignorant. I did not know how to read or write. I was illiterate until the age of sixteen.” The crushed and grieved spirit of her childhood inhabits the present.
One day, while attending a missionary school in San Antonio, she remembers staring out the classroom window. There was an elderly woman outside who was sifting through a garbage can looking for food. Mary’s teacher droned on and on about King Arthur and some sword. She was listening with only half an ear. Her thoughts centered on the woman outside. Suddenly the teacher asked her a question. Not knowing the answer, she ad-libbed, “This is a time that tries men’s souls!” She remembered her dad saying that. “We need to be more concerned about the homeless and not so concerned about some lost sword.” The sword was lost and she did not know how to find it but she did know that she was full and could take her lunch to the woman outside. Plucky in her viewpoints, she constantly found her way into trouble. “That dreaded office. I did seem to find my way there no matter what school I was attending.”
She has a photogenic memory and by studying the pictures in books and making up many credible stories to go with them, she hid her disability well. As the years went by, she felt increasingly intimidated by school. “It’s very difficult when you feel stupid, to want to be there.” A morose seriousness overtakes her as she relates, “A lot of people hide a lot of what they cannot do through their creativity.”
Her trepidations about school, so strongly felt, caused her to come up with what; to her was an ingenious idea at the time. Mary was ten. She did not like the boy next door. She had determined that she would fight him. Her plan was to get him to fight her and have him bust her right pinky. The mischievous grin of the imp of long ago spreads on her face, “Because I was right handed.” She did not win that fight but she did accomplish what she had set out to do. “I won what I wanted, a broken finger. It hurt more than I thought it would. It throbbed but it was only pain.” This was more endurable to her than school. This broken finger was her “trophy” that she had “succeeded against the institution of education.”
The family was living in Texas at this time. Her mother took her to a small hospital in Del Rio. There, she met a doctor, Mr. Hi Newby. “Hi was a strange name to me. This was like the male friend that I had that was named Boy. I was walking with my mother downtown when I saw him and said, ‘Hi, Boy!’ to him. My mother told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to address everyone by their names. Not ‘Hi, boy; hi, girl.’ She told me that calling him boy was a sign of disrespect. I tried to explain to her that his mother had named him Boy. She just stared at me with those eyes, you know, all mothers have those eyes. Eyes that tell you to stop making up stories. Now here was a man with the first name Hi. Not Steve or John, Ron, or David but Hi.” Dr. Hi Newby took Mary on his rounds. She recalls watching him work his “works of compassion.” She knew she wanted to be just like him.
Shortly after this event, the family moved. The family consisted of Mom, a Nurse, and Dad, a hard working philosophical person, and seven children. The older ones would help work the crop fields with their father as farm immigrant laborers. They were not a rich family but they were tightly bonded. They moved to Oregon. Dad moved there first, taking the four middle children with him and as soon as they were all settled, they sent for Mom, big sister, and the babies.
The mornings in their new home would begin with Mary building a fire in the wood stove and making breakfast, so she could get out of the dishes. The evenings found her at the sink with the suds. “I had for many years, made a story of a large battle for the dishes. Each day the forks, the spoons, and the knives would go to battle and come back from the battlefield to the hospital. My job there, as a doctor, was to repair their wounds and help them face another day. I was good at the silverware and the dishes. The pots and pans never really seemed to participate with the battle. They just did not fit into the scheme of things.”
Can you remember being a thirteen year old? Puberty has begun for young women around that age. Remember being asked out on a date by an older guy, a seventeen year old? Mary does. He was cute and he was the preachers’ son! It’s somewhere around 1964 and they were necking in the back seat of his car when, “A light shone through the window. Oh God, He had come to look down on us. I was not prepared to see Him yet. I thought. ‘Go away and we’ll talk later!’ This was not the light of God but instead the light was from a tall man in blue with a silver badge on his chest.”
The Officer hauled the two teens into a juvenile detention center. Juveniles had no legal rights before 1968. The courts took custody of whomever they chose and there was nothing Mary or her family could do about it. Smirking with sarcastic tactfulness, she relates, “I was asked kindly to remain in their facilities for a while.” She allows a weighty second to pass. “These facilities had locked bars.”
It was during her stints in reformatories that she learned how to deal with dyslexia. She became a part of a program called Upward Bound. She found that if she covered up one of her eyes, she could control the amount of input to her brain and so, get a handle on reading. She began to diligently apply herself to her studies. Not only did she earn her G.E.D. there, she was also chosen to represent the Upward Bound program in her state, Oregon, and go to Washington D.C. There, she received her award in person from President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Finally, at age seventeen, she was set free. Mary was eager to explore all that life had to offer. Taking up where she had left off, (She had spent over four years in reform schools while the world passed her by; there was a lot to make up for!) it was not long before she found herself in the role as a single parent.
Alone, she had not received proper medical care during her second pregnancy. She was twenty-one when her second child was born. She weighed 186 pounds at the time of his birth. It was Ground hogs day, February 2, 1970 at 6:20 a.m. His delivery took less than twenty minutes. Then the nurse reported to the doctor that her blood pressure was 200/150. Quickly she had a look at her son and then, “They ran off with his limp body and I started seizing.”
Due to toxemia, Mary had suffered a stroke and cardiac arrest. She also suffered what is, in medical terms, an abruption. During her son’s birth, the placenta tore away from the uterus and caused bleeding between the placenta and the uterus. Not only does this result in intense pain for the mother, it can also lead to the death of the child. The statistics recorded in medical books state the survival rate for sudden debilitating strokes as being 50%. Three days later, she vaguely recalls seeing her brand new son.
Two months went by before they allowed her to leave the hospital. Her departure weight was a mere 86 pounds. Another month went by before she became fully aware that she really did have a son. During her rehabilitation, her parents gave her their full support. Mary had to relearn how to walk and talk and all the other basic things we take for granted in life. “I had had a stroke and was now wheelchair bound but this was not going to stop me. The doctors were afraid that I would remain in this chair but they did not know me. How dare they assume my life for me! Furthermore; how could they understand the inner workings of anyone?”
It was at this time that she began to loath references to herself as a patient. “The word alone confers a state of falsehood. I was no one’s patient and I was not patient!” Bills were mounting, she had two children at home, and she knew that she was going to have to work more than one job in order to make life happen. Nine months later and one hundred fifty thousand dollars in debt, she moved from her parent’s home and set out to establish a life for herself and her children. Relearning how to read and write came easier the second time around. The stroke had caused something to happen in her brain that actually improved her ability to cope with dyslexia. There was a time when Mary held three jobs concurrently. “I was working seven days a week and missed out on many times with my children. I was just creeping through this world.” She was just surviving and felt trapped.
Nineteen seventy-four was the year she met David Lewis. By this time, she was extremely independent and residing in Ohio. “I was steadfastly working towards becoming a doctor and it was important that whatever I did didn’t interfere with that.”
She would work one year, put aside every penny she could, and attend college the next. Mary and David were married in 1978. “Our life together has been increasingly romantic each and every year.” She did try, a tiny bit, to suppress her pride when she said that.
According to Mary, David was a talented news journalist on the east coast.
Perhaps it is not surprising that on the day that Mary graduated from Albany Medical College in May 1984, a story of her life ran in the New York Times Lifestyle section. The press release received by the Gazette states, “By noon that day, reporters and T.V. producers flooded the campus.” However, David remains silent regarding this matter. His focus is on her. The respect and love they have for each other is evident. David has been Mary’s business overseer and constant companion for a long time now. His presence in the doctor’s office is one of quiet strength. They are a team. They have offered their homes and hearts to foster kids and adopted twelve children over the years.
Their residence, located on five acres in the Diamond point area, is full of crafty planters, wooden figurines, and arched bridges. A waterfall and pond are under construction. They enjoy working on these projects together. Someday Mary hopes to have a life size dollhouse to work out of constructed in the woods on their property. The interior of the Lewis household, decorated in country class and flights of the imagination, is like walking through every girl’s childhood dream. The stairway to Mary’s doll making area, wrapped with a continuing topiary of faeries, moss, and fern beckons you further.
Upstairs, she shares a current project with us. She has enjoyed researching the story of the Orphan Trains. There are actual photographs of a few of the children on one of these trains. The 1890’s saw scads of children taken from the east coast to the west. Once here, people adopted them. Some people used the kids as slave laborers. The doll heads Mary holds are close representations of a brother and sister that came west on an Orphan Train. She shares her affection for the two real children of long ago. What were their lives like? Who did they grow up to be?
The sky is gray. We walk along side of each other, through the woods. The forest is still. Conversations are quiet. Why, when many doctors are leaving our area, did she decide to come? “I was so frustrated where I was at. It was politics, not the people. You should not let politics get in the way of caring for people but it does. It really does, no matter how hard you try not to let it.” She stops for a moment and looks up at the now partially clear sky. A blue jay caws in the distance. “So, I just got to the point that I did not want to do it anymore.” There is an audible sigh of old depression. We continue to meander up the hill. “Which was likely the hand of God working.”
We arrive at the lake. The air is still. The gold’s and oranges of dormant grasses and wild rose bushes add contrast to the blue sky and pink clouds reflected in the waters glassy surface. The participants acknowledge gladness for the gift of life. Mary mirrors the mood, “If you look at what nature has to give you, there is a miracle of life around each and every corner. It is a miracle just to wake up and say ‘Heck, I’ve got a new day to explore this world, to better understand it.” She turns around, animated, “How am I going to say this day was better than yesterday?”
Traipsing through marsh heather and a patchwork of sleeping dock, she whispers, “Too bad there is not an MRI to reveal the strokes of the soul. These strokes are more important to the spirit and essence of a person than the physical strokes. If only we had a magic test to reveal the damage done to a soul as a person grows and matures.”
Both of us breathe deep and take in the moment. You can share solitude. “It gave me the chance I needed to help take care of my father in the way that he deserved as a human being. It gave us that time we needed as a family.” The past five and a half years Mary spent caring for her father who recently passed away.
The ground beside the water, littered with bullet casings, saddens her. She asks her hiking companion if she has ever seen a victim of a shooting. The casings seem to represent the finality of death. She has been a physician in times of disaster. She looks at the outlying country but what she sees are faces of the past. There are times when the only thing you can do is be there.
An eagle soars around the lake adding an ancient dignity to the scene. Mary sees it, sighs, and smiles, “Change is a moment of creativity that allows the soul to grow. We need to have change in our lives or we become stagnant. I am not one to become stagnant!”
The evening begins to expand and we turn to go.
Would it surprise you to know that she has been out of medical school for fifteen years and she still owes ten more years on her school loan? Clallam County is one of the few areas in the U.S. that does not support its physicians. Mary and David have invested everything they have into the medical practice here.
We stop for a minute to explore weeds along the path. “In this community, doctors get about thirty cents on the dollar for taking care of Medicare patients. I’m not sure how many businesses in the U.S. could survive on those numbers.”
There are some tracks in the mud. She learns how to tell the difference between dog and cougar. She moved to our area for the same reasons many of us are here. The Olympic Peninsula is a place that lends itself to healing. The combination of nature and people contribute to accomplish this.
We can hear the hum of Highway 101. Our gait slows as we near the car. There is no real hurry to get in. Something holds us back, words yet unspoken. Twilight hushes the surrounding forest. Softly, Mary asks her hiking partner if she has a best friend here.
She is in the process of writing her own story. It is about time, seems everyone else already has! She has much more to share. A writer who has grown close to her is lucky enough to have read her rough draft. Someday readers will be able to see parts of themselves illuminated in her writing. One thing that makes her so special is her courage to have people know her for who she really is. The story she writes deals with the hidden things of the soul, naturally.
Care about this precious woman. She is ours to cherish now.
Update 2014–The last I knew, Mary moved to Hawaii, however; after a quick Internet search, she appears to have moved from there to Wisconsin. Wherever you are, Mary, I’m glad for the time we shared. I’m waiting for that book of yours.