John D. Kelly IV, MD, is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He focuses his blog on helping surgeons reduce stress while achieving balance in their practices and families.

BLOG: Lessons from my mother-in-law’s life

We recently buried my mother-in-law, Helen S. Sakosky, in a cemetery located in her childhood home of greater Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Helen possessed a formidable spirit and the life she lived conveyed many useful lessons, quite applicable to our vocation of orthopedic surgery.

Say ‘yes’ to whatever life dishes out

Born and raised in the outskirts of Wilkes Barre, Helen inherited the toughness and character that permeated this coal mining town. This coal miner’s daughter faced life head on, just as her father embraced the uncertainties a day in the mineshaft would bring.

In 1941, at age 14, young Helen experienced the death of her father due to complications of ‘black lung’ disease, a condition common to coal miners. With limited resources and a younger sibling to feed, Helen sojourned to Philadelphia where she was quickly employed as a ‘riveter’ in the manufacture of the fabled P-47 thunderbolt fighter plane. With no formal training, she masterfully executed her craft and help create hundreds of sturdy thunderbolt rear wings.

After the war, she married her love, Joe, and raised five children artfully on a limited budget. When it was necessary, she supplemented family income by employment as a bill adjuster for a local department store. Despite the commute and 40-hour week, she faithfully performed her household duties and witnessed the higher education of all her five children. When her husband was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, once again she said ‘yes’ and faithfully cared for him until his death.

Don’t complain

As a survivor of the Great Depression and a great world war, Helen was grateful for all she had. She lived a modest life, content with her humble row home, her family and her faith. Beset with crippling osteoarthritis in both the shoulder and knees, she would be quick to deflect inquiries on the status of her deteriorating joints. Whenever I would tactfully ask about the status of her shoulder, Helen would immediately shift the subject of conversation to the contents of my dinner plate. She loved to prepare sumptuous meals for her loved ones and focused on serving others, rather than her joint afflictions.

Mrs. Sakosky knew well that to focus and celebrate all that we had was far more noble and uplifting than to lament on all that was lacking in our lives.

It’s all about family

Helen recognized that family and relationships were the pillars of a fulfilled life. She would sacrifice inordinately to benefit a loved one and her home was always open to any relative who may be passing through. She relished holidays where she would prepare feasts for her returning children and grandchildren, who were dispersed throughout the country. A woman of extraordinary intellect, she was fluent in Polish and wrote countless letters to her homeland relatives. Indeed, she was the glue that kept family relationships in constant repair.

Keep the faith

Throughout her life, the one constant in Helen’s life was her deep faith in God. Forged in her formative years in Wilkes Barre, Helen’s faith was simply unshakeable. She attended daily Mass and prayed constantly. Her faith in action was manifested by the countless charitable acts she performed for family and friends. Her soul was simply devoted to the wellbeing of those she loved, and she was the ‘friend’ who could always be counted on. Countless numbers of individuals asked Helen to pray for them for they recognized that she had an extraordinarily close relationship to God.

I truly miss my mother-in-law, but her life and her character lives within me. Her values sustained her through life’s toughest challenges. For those of us who may be experiencing emotional exhaustion or feeling “spent,” Helen would advise the following:

  • Face your issues head on and address the toughest things first. With the courage of a coal miner’s daughter, you will find that on the other side of fear is freedom.
  • Be grateful to be part of the greatest vocation on the planet. The ability to lessen the suffering of another human being is to be revered and acknowledged.
  • Recognize that your patients may forget you soon, but your family never will. Keep your relationships in good stead and don’t ‘damage’ your loved ones with compulsive overwork.
  • Reconnect to your higher power as you know. Only with a changeless belief system can a constant sea of change be navigated successfully.

Rest in peace, Helen. Thank you for your example. Your life said it all. “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

“I no longer listen to what people say, I just watch what they do. Behavior never lies.”

       –Sir Winston Churchill