Patient Lee: A Movement

Compassion. What was once a straightforward, uninvolved, and otherwise overlooked dictionary definition, Lee Tomlinson—famously known as “Patient Lee”—has turned it into an action. An imperative one at that. 

In a time where mental health issues are on the rise, loneliness can be massively destructive. Humans—who are biologically wired to connect, according to the Dana Foundation—are discouraged by society to connect. But Tomlinson is actively doing something to change that.

The C.A.R.E Effect Movement, started by Tomlinson, is:

Designed to reconnect America’s 12.5 million healthcare professionals with the compassion that got them into healthcare in the first place. Then, do whatever is necessary to prevent the “burn-out” that affects over 60% of these vital caretakers, rendering them unable to provide compassion to their patients, themselves, or anyone else.” 

With this movement, Tomlinson has devoted himself to restoring the connection “with the immense and scientifically proven power of compassion to heal the mind, body, and souls of not only their patients… but themselves as well,” according to his website. 

“If They Can’t Keep Those Alive, What are They Going to do With me?”

Tomlinson’s journey began when he attended a routine allergy test at his Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor. At the time, he was an affluent movie studio executive, an athlete, and award-winning television producer. Also an avid golf player, he qualified for the California State Senior Amateur Championship. However, Tomlinson was dismayed to hear that he was, in fact, allergic to grass. An unfortunate venture for a golfer.

He was even more appalled to hear, however, about the stage three cancer in his throat that had spread to his lymph nodes. 

Tomlinson was speechless. He accused the doctor of joking. Then, he asked her if he was going to die. 

“She said, ‘Yes, but, hopefully not from this,’” Tomlinson remembered.

He then began to undergo months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. 

“I had no idea, by a trillion miles, what I was getting in for. I would say mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, romantically, any other -ly alike, this was far and away the worst year of my life,” Tomlinson described of chemo treatment. 

He lost 60 pounds. Simple human bodily functions, like swallowing, became unbearable. 

Towards the end of his radiation treatments, Tomlinson was in surgery to obtain a feeding tube at his normal doctor. Instead, however, he passed out and woke up in the emergency room of a local L.A. hospital with an unidentifiable infection. Now running up huge debt, not working, and spending most days and nights alone, Tomlinson had reached the brunt of emotional and physical disarray.

“If there ever was a time I could have used a little kindness, it was in that hospital,” Tomlinson said.

But, he received the exact opposite of compassion. In Tomlinson’s TED Talk, he describes the series of unfortunate events that followed. At this hospital, he explains that the first thing he sees is dead flowers; “If they can’t keep those alive, what are they going to do with me?” he asked.   

Lee’s daily misfortunes included: a nurse who never knocked, even after being asked. A housekeeper who came in daily and never introduced herself.  A thank-you note from the hospital cast on a used envelope that not only misspelled his last name, but called him “Mrs.” instead of “Mr.” He felt invisible and uncared for.

“I had gone from a living, breathing human being with hopes, with dreams, with a family, with a career, into nothing more than an aging white male with cancer,” Tomlinson said in the TED talk.

Bring Compassion Back to Healthcare

Tomlinson began to contemplate suicide. He figured his job’s hefty life insurance policy would be an acceptable parting gift to his family. In order to obtain further guidance on his situation, he consulted a close friend, a doctor. At this point, Tomlinson had just left the hospital and could barely speak. 

This conversation utterly altered the trajectory of Tomlinson’s life forever. 

“He could not have been more loving,” Tomlinson said. He explained that his friend connected to him, and whole-heartedly apologized for the compassion that he did not receive. 

The doctor also explained how simple human kindness was disappearing from modern medicine. So, he made a suggestion. He proposed that Tomlinson start some sort of movement to see if he could bring compassion back to healthcare—not only patients, but providers as well. 

“His thinking that I had value to offer the world despite my physical condition, was literally what saved my life,” Tomlinson said. It reignited him, the thought of being able to positively impact medical professionals. “It’s why I decided to fight and got lucky enough to beat it to a draw,” he said. 

Tomlinson had no clue how to start a movement, but knew it had to be done. 

It took Tomlinson a year to speak again, but he did read. He read books, studies, and medical journals about the subject of compassion and its impacts. He discovered doctors have the highest rate of suicide, and became an expert on the compassionate crisis in modern medicine.

 “The same benefits the patient gets when the provider is compassionate with them, are identical to the benefits for the provider. You want to be happy? Be compassionate,” Tomlinson said. 

“I’m here to remind you how a simple act of kindness can make the difference between life and death for us,” Tomlinson said. 

The C.A.R.E. Effect

Tomlinson also discovered the healing power of cannabis. Due to his unwavering nausea, he read that certain amounts of cannabis might lower his symptoms. 

“I was desperate; I took every pill on the face of the planet,” Tomlinson said. “I might as well try it. And damn, it worked! I was shocked at how quickly and how dramatically it worked.” 

Not only did it help his nausea and appetite, he said, but, “emotionally, it calmed me down a bit. There’s plenty to still be scared of, but I didn’t catastrophize as much,” Tomlinson said. It aided him in commencing his purpose, which he did.

Tomlinson and The C.A.R.E Effect Movement continue to fuel its message even now. He plans virtual talks, intends to release a documentary called Compassion Heals—which will traverse all of his beliefs—and plans to release a book. 

Pure Harvest Dispensary in Colorado is in talks of creating a “Patient Lee” cannabis line. 

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. It’s medicine,” Tomlinson said of the line. 

He’s never been happier than he is now, he says, because he is finally getting the pleasure of interacting with people and making a difference in their lives for the better. 

Tomlinson urged that, “self-care, loving yourself is not an option. It’s a necessity. You must treat yourself with the kindness and compassion that you want your patients to be treated with,” he adds. “If you really want to really treat, cure, and comfort your patients, you have to start by loving yourself.” 

At the end of Tomlinson’s TED Talk, he challenges the audience, “to give one more compassionate act a day every single day for 365 days. Just one little thing.”  He adds, “that’s the C.A.R.E. Effect.”

Emerald contributor since June 2020


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