In the News
July 24, 2016
A Comforting Hand
By Linda Thomas
Barely 24, he was lost. He felt stuck in his job and didn’t know what to do with his life. But then an 80-year-old known as “Pops” gave him direction. Pops was dying of lung cancer. “Ah, OK, so this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Nathaniel “Nate” Lamkin remembers telling himself that time in 1997.
Lamkin provided companionship and occasionally helped Pops get to church. In return, Pops provided him with new purpose. Pops lived in a large apartment complex in North Washington. Lamkin remembers the time he escorted him to one of the services at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown D.C.
“I remember it vividly since it was nothing like any religious service I’d ever seen first-hand,” Lamkin recalls. “There were about 2,000 people in the congregation, with a full gospel choir, electric guitar, organ and drums. One of the women sitting next to us started gyrating and shaking and was helped to the ground by some of the ushers as she was apparently overcome by Holy Ghost fever.
“It was an extraordinary experience - and Pops loved every minute of it.” Lamkin was a couple of years out of college working as a “glorified go-fer” for a consulting firm in D.C. “I was pretty lost and unhappy,” he said. But after reading an ad from the then Hospice Care of D.C. seeking volunteers, he thought perhaps it was the universe trying to tell him something.
“I took the six-week volunteer training program,” he said. “I couldn’t get enough … loved every minute of it. It was a transformational moment for me.”
Pops was his first hospice patient.
He soon quit his job, earned a master’s in social work and embarked on a new lifelong career caring for hospice patients and their loved ones.
Today, Lamkin, who lives in Stoughton with his wife and their two daughters, was one of The One Hundred 2016 honorees chosen from a list of nearly 700 nominees making a difference in the lives of cancer patients saluted at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center’s 2016 gala in Boston on May 24.
“Nate is truly a gift from the heavens,” said nominator Ashley Haseotes, co-founder and president of One Mission, a pediatric cancer foundation. “He meets the needs of his families with an open heart. I am not sure there is anything Nate has not done, or will not do, to support families during their end of life journey.
“There are few people in this world who can hold space for a family while their child takes his or her last breath. Nate does so with grace, and does whatever he can to support his families through this journey.”
A magic touch
Lamkin appreciates the recognition he’s been given but wouldn’t want people to think there’s any spectacular “magic” to what he does. Perhaps he’s naturally modest. Those who know him believe his “special powers,” or at least his abilities, are the real deal.
“It often comes in knowing how to listen rather than talk,” said former colleague Nancy Goldsmith Tharler, LICSW, neuro-oncology social worker at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. “Nate knows how to listen well – and comment appropriately,” she said. “He knows how to hold hope and reality in the same hand. He also uses gentle humor wisely and judiciously. It helps. Nate understands the deep value in going over a life review with someone, helping people to make meaning of the life they had.”
Now as director of bereavement services & program development at Care Dimensions, the largest not-for-profit hospice in Massachusetts, Lamkin oversees the Bertolon Center for Grief & Healing. He also serves on the advisory board of Camp Kesem, an overnight camp for children and adolescents who have a parent with cancer or who lost a parent to the disease.
He takes a holistic approach to hospice and palliative care.
“You’re simultaneously holding onto two feelings … sometimes conflicting with one another,” he said.
“On one hand, all of us, no matter how long we’ve been doing this, sometimes feel powerless in the face of this relentless illness … that we can do nothing to stop or look forward. On the other hand, also just deep satisfaction: ‘I can’t save this person’s life and maybe I can’t take their suffering away, but I get to go home knowing that whatever transpired during that visit made that day - or maybe even just that hour - better for that person.’ ”
He explained how important it is to make it comfortable to talk openly about topics most of us spend our lives avoiding thinking about – like the dying process and what comes next … what could happen to my family … what do I want things to look like … and who do I want to be with me.
Many who work in hospice become skilled at normalizing conversations people never imagined they’d have and so desperately want to have. He encourages those who choose hospice work to find ways to compartmentalize their own sufferings to avoid burnout … to make peace to the limitations of what they can and cannot do.
“A loss is a loss. Even when we have 110-year-old patients who die after a very long, full life, there are still people who grieve for them and miss them,” he said. “But 110-year-olds are supposed to die. A six-year-old dying violates the natural order of the universe. It’s humbling to be in the presence of that much suffering – and it’s also very easy as a parent to imagine yourself in their shoes.”
“I don’t think there’s a single pediatric hospice worker who hasn’t spent time crying in the car on the way home. But I also think you figure out how to take care of you in ways that don’t develop into depression.”
All in – for better or worse
Lamkin grew up in Marblehead. At 15, he enrolled at Philips Academy in Andover as a boarding student. From there, he did his freshman year at Northwestern University in Chicago. It was not the right fit so he transferred his sophomore year to Brown University in Providence, where he graduated in 1995 with a degree in community health.
“Next to marrying my wife and deciding to become a parent, transferring to Brown was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. “Those were three of the happiest years of my life. It was a great community … a great fit … and I loved being there.”
After college, he joined the Peace Corps – one of 50 - assigned to the Central African Republic. They trained to do HIV-AIDS and outreach prevention work, but unfortunately, after just three months, Lamkin became very ill and had to return home to the states.
In the fall of 1998, he enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University School of Social Work, graduating in the spring of 2000.
Needless to say, there isn’t much that can stop him.
In kindergarten, he was described as “incorrigible.”
“I think my parents still have the faded yellow report card from my kindergarten teacher about how much I acted out in class … how much time I spent in the principal’s office: ‘Young Nathaniel is incorrigible,’ it would read.
“Whatever it is I’m feeling – whether happy, sad or angry – Scorpios are all in,” he said. “We’re very intense with our emotions and feelings.”
There was that time in elementary school when the first African-American family moved to Marblehead and he befriended the family’s son, Geoffrey.
“There was a big bully in school,” he recalls. “We were in the boys’ room when the bully went up to Geoffrey saying nasty things about his race. All 4’ 10” 90 pounds of me went up to the bully and said: ‘you leave him alone … that’s not OK … you’re just a bully … stop bothering him.’
“In the moment when I saw someone being mean to my friend and doing things unfair and unjust, I didn’t think about it. I just moved in. I don’t remember much after that except I ended up on my butt and my glasses were knocked off my face. I paid the consequences. But when I look back at it, I’m proud I did it.”
That emotional intensity he had growing up is still a blessing – and a curse.
“When I connect with patients, I connect powerfully and still have strong connections of healing – more often with the pediatric patients,” he said. “But you open yourself up to getting hurt – and fast.”
Lamkin says he’s no superhero.
“The work I do may be hard and challenging, but it’s the patients I work with – like Pops - who are the heroes. It’s a heck of a lot harder to be someone with terminal cancer than to work with someone with terminal cancer,” he said. “I get to go home and be healthy.”
The single biggest challenge of this work – the end of life work – is finding the right balance between giving enough of yourself to patients and their families – that you’re authentic.
“They’re inviting you into their lives - in many cases into their homes - at a time that is very vulnerable and difficult and precious to them. By the same token, you can’t give so much of yourself to every patient that your heart gets broken dozens and dozens and dozens of times a year. That’s just not sustainable.
“It’s a career long journey trying to find that. And I don’t believe anybody completely masters it.”
Linda Thomas writes for the Stoughton Journal. For comments and suggestions she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.