Loma Linda University Health has always walked a different path, a “road less traveled,” jealously guarded and guided by generations of faculty. Perhaps from the outside it appears stable and constant, but from the inside it is constantly changing yet forever remaining the same!
As a faith-based institution committed to our long heritage of Christian health care, we continually redefine, update and defend how we do what we do for the next generation of patients and students. Through that journey over the past 112 years, it is clear we are impacted by forces within and without — giving advice, occasionally criticizing, always questioning, often applauding. It is a journey that will never end as society and health care continue to change, technologies improve and people respond in different ways.
It was into this milieu that a former sailor, commissioned to be a “medical missionary” by the faithful grandmother who raised him, joined our faculty over 40 years ago. Wil Alexander was already a seminary professor and seasoned preacher who had learned enough about the challenges of health care to know there was more to offer. But breaking into the often rigid academic culture of a medical school, even Loma Linda University, was not easy. It was only his gentle persistence, eventually aided by a sympathetic School of Medicine dean in Lyn Behrens, that finally turned the tide and started a momentous cultural change on our campus.
So what is Wil’s legacy? It cannot be overstated as we remember him following his death Nov. 16, 2016, at the age of 95. His life’s work can be crystalized in what we call “whole person care.”
What is this whole person care we so knowingly talk about today? It is much more than an academic course or a convenient handle. It is larger than one person, or even a group of followers, as numerous as they may be. It is bigger than any one denomination, spreading beyond even Christianity itself. It is an approach, an invasion actually, into the very core of the human experience, conducted at the most vulnerable periods of life, when one is sick and reserves are weakened. It must be done ever so delicately, always sensitive to when one should back off or when to probe more deeply.
Wil articulated and kept refining that approach, always searching for new ways, new questions, new students and faculty he could quietly mentor.
“To make man whole” became Loma Linda’s motto in 1956. But it took Wil to empower this by developing strategies that could gently peel off the “crust” that surrounds all of us and let patients’ true fears and feelings reluctantly come out. As he sat unassumingly at the bedside, he would search for the unspoken history in each individual, demonstrating to eager students and residents how to reach deep into the soul of each patient. One of his most notable questions — “What are you famous for?” — often brought out memories from the past.
Finding meaning, sharing faith and reassurances, and offering comfort from a fellow traveler came so naturally to Wil, including the power of prayer, a tool he used most effectively to bring peace and promise. All of us who had a chance to partner with him in this learning process were blessed.
As Wil’s efforts gradually slowed down over the past few years, we have had many chances to thank him and reaffirm our dedication to what he so ably championed. As we now follow in his footsteps, gently opening up each patient’s personal concerns, dreams and fears, we recognize the incredible opportunity that being health professionals gives us to relate with others in this way. It is a Loma Linda tradition at its best when we can identify with each patient, bringing understanding and acceptance into each life. Recognizing that judging is not our responsibility, but that our role on this earth is compassionate acceptance, honors both Wil and our Christian heritage.
It is this art form that Wil defined for our campus. It took years of trial and error, of rebuffs and openings, of hesitant learners and robust defenders. But it is now an established part of our culture, woven deeply into our motto “To make man whole.” It is a style, a strategy that has been replicated in the lives and practices of thousands of our alumni, now scattered literally around the world. They have refined, adapted and grown these concepts to suit their own personalities and needs. And they are applying them everywhere, in every culture and belief system. These concepts of wholeness are truly universal, applicable to all of us, believers in one God or none.
The quest that now rests on all of us is to maintain this incredibly valuable approach and strategy for wholeness. A documentary on Wil’s life and work has recently been completed, called “A Certain Kind of Light.” This will help continue the legacy. An important acronym developed by our Center for Spiritual Life and Wholeness, a Center originally established by Wil and now headed by Carla Gober-Park, is also very helpful. It is called the CLEAR Whole Person Care model, standing for Connect, Listen, Explore, Acknowledge and Respond. Learn more about the CLEAR Whole Person Care model or inquire about viewing the film by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Wil, for reminding us of what we always intuitively knew, that if we care, God will heal. You have blessed us with your gentle ways and consistency of commitment to Loma Linda University Health. Now may your example live on in our lives, attitudes and practices.
Richard Hart, MD, DrPH