Medicine For People!

January 2012: Agnes' Gift

Hands working together

My first memory of Agnes is from a letter. It began, "This is my second letter to you." I had not answered the first, so the writer was trying again. The handwriting was uneven, irregular, and scrawled on lined paper from a child's notebook. The writer, Agnes Dethloff, identified herself as a neighbor and one of my patients. She knew that my wife and I had two small children and hoped that we would consider her as a babysitter.

Any parent with toddlers knows that such a letter is quite welcome. As I read it I was not surprised I had ignored her first letter. Her handwriting looked like a six-year-old's. Still, the letter in my hand had an oddly adult flavor to it. Agnes explained that her mother would always be down the street, that she babysat for other people, and would be happy to come and meet us first.

The Perfect Babysitter

Thus began a pleasant relationship with an excellent babysitter. Agnes wasn't strong in math and English and had been placed in a special school. But Agnes' mother was always at home when Agnes was babysitting and Agnes had no hesitation in calling her if needed. We engaged her to work for us. Our sons liked her and we always returned to a calm household.

Once in a while we discovered minor instructions hadn't been understood by Agnes, yet she was not at all upset when we repeated the information. Most often she understood things the first time around, sometimes she'd need a second instruction, very rarely a third. Once she understood something, however, it may as well have been engraved in granite. Under her curly red hair, her serious mind would never forget, and she would never vary from what she understood we needed.

Agnes exhibited an odd blend of naivety and maturity. The day before the 10th grade prom, Agnes' date called and told her that he'd heard something about her on the playground and he needed to cancel their date. Agnes didn't dissolve in tears. When her conversation with Johnny ended, she called his mother and explained the situation. Johnny's mother quizzed Johnny, discovered and corrected the misunderstanding, and got Johnny on track for his date the next night with Agnes.

Gifted and Talented

Usually when we think of intelligence we think of the ability to manipulate symbols and solve logical problems. These skills get you a high score on IQ test. Yet there are other kinds of intelligence -- spatial intelligence that allows designers to draw up plans for three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional pieces of paper; musical intelligence that drives composers and musicians; and the interpersonal intelligence that guided Agnes so well.

In every career or profession there are plenty of competent people who are utterly dense in social situations.

At my high school in Newport, Rhode Island, college-bound kids were required to take classes in practical skills. I chose wood shop one year and metal shop the next. I discovered that the boy who never raised his hand in math class was the kid I turned to when I needed help with a riveting job. Whereas our academic teachers were most interested in getting us to think for ourselves, the shop teachers built teams. Rules in English class might be abstract but rules in the machine shop were quite concrete. "If you cross that piece of tape on the floor surrounding that metal lathe, you could cause the boy using that lathe to injure himself," our shop teacher said. "So if I see anyone endangering another student, he can consider this class is over for him." The kids who made trouble in math class behaved like puppies around the shop teacher.


In my office I take care of people who are talented engineers, who work on the sewer system, who help people with their insurance needs, and who work in kitchens. Indeed it is the whole symphony of work that makes our world the miracle it is. Many times a man will come in with some on-the-job injury, sawdust spilling on to the floor from his clothes, and he apologizes . My response is always the same: "No need to apologize, you're out there working so you can pay us."

Name an honest profession, an honest trade, an honest task, and we need it. When we fail to honor the people who do the work, when we fail to learn from them, we harm ourselves. Why should the Einsteins get all the accolades when they provide such a small part of what we need?

I learned something from Agnes: her quiet persistence and her refusal to be easily deterred.

Agnes was uncrushable. Would that our world could accept these gifts from her: that we could accept correction two or three times when we needed it, that we could be transparent in our dealings with each other, that we could write a second letter if we had to, and that we could always do our best.

All of us here in the clinic give thanks to you for your trust and support. We wish you the best in this coming year.

story: Agnes Gift, February 1978


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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.