Physically Weak, Strong in Spirit–Leading With the Pen

pat podium
Pat Turgeon speaking during the 150th Civil War Anniversary Commemoration held in the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda. 

Day before yesterday I received a letter from my government informing me that I am permanently disabled and that my benefit claim no longer needs to be reviewed on an annual basis.  For a woman who cannot bend, walk long distances without a cane and who has a chronic blood cancer the letter not only surprised me, but made me feel really, really disheartened.

I loved to work.  I loved working in politics, for politicians and at our state’s beautiful Capitol building and complex.  It was always my pleasure to help solve issues for residents, businesses and frustrated taxpayers. I did not enjoy some of the language that first met my ears when I picked up my office phone.  However, it was always my goal as a government employee to do all that I could to help resolve the issues of the person on the other end of my line.

My commitment to providing excellent civil service is based on my Christian faith.  I cannot be a follower of Christ only on Sunday mornings, with my friends, family or at home.  To me being a Christian means a 24-hour a day, seven days a week commitment to loving my neighbor as myself and doing onto others as I would like done onto me.  It also means remembering that Christ himself preached that when anyone helps the least of their brethren it was the same as if they were caring for the Lord himself.

Then, too, I was raised on a God-fearing family farm where you were expected to get the job done and get it done right–no corners cut, no excuses allowed.

Many times as a government employee I was the recipient of the verbal wrath of those whose frustration and anger had long since escaped their control. During my over a decade of civil service at the state legislature, state agencies and State Secretary of State’s office I only ever hung up on one person whose lack of language skills got the better of him.

When that person called the “higher ups” about my disconnecting the line I was told the management’s response was “Pat, hung up on you?  What did you do? She never hangs up on anyone.”   I assume that is how the conversation went as the gentleman called me back and apologized for his tone and attitude.  We then got down to work to solve his issue.

Sometimes I could help the person navigate through the many layers of bureaucracy to get the services that they were entitled too.  At other times, I was the definitive voice that had to tell them “no”. That what they were asking was just not possible under current law and program requirements.

There are two particular calls that still haunt me from time to time.  I suppose these stand out in my memory as examples of how uncaring and at times heartless government employees can be to their fellow citizens. Both calls were about veterans.

The first was a young man, a disabled combat veteran, who called crying. He was absolutely devastated by the response he had received from a county staff person when he applied for his well-deserved and earned veteran’s benefits.

The county where he resided was refusing his application, due to a technical issue regarding signatures.  The staff person told him that if he couldn’t sign the form himself with a readable signature, he needed to get his mother to do it for him.  Through his sobs he told me that he just wanted to do this himself, to feel like a man again…then he explained that his writing arm had been blown off by an IED in Iraq.  That situation was resolved very quickly to his satisfaction.

Cutting through the red tape of government bureaucracy was a skill I worked very hard to hone.  My expertise in knowing who to call was put to great use when I received a call from the mother of a Minnesota member of the military service.  She was very distraught and she, too, had been reduced to tears in her seemingly endless attempt to advocate for her sick son.

The mother’s  young service member had just been diagnosed with a very aggressive stage four cancer while stationed across an ocean.  The military  hospital would not release him to be cared for at Mayo Clinic, even when Mayo Clinic felt they had a chance to save his life if they could begin treatment immediately using new cancer therapies . Even though the military had no cancer treatment plan available, the commanding officer explained to this heart-broken mother in no uncertain terms that her sick son was under their jurisdiction and they had decided to refuse his family’s request.  It was her son’s death sentence.

That mother does not know how much God heard her prayers for her son, because the only reason I answered her call that morning was that our receptionist would forward the agency’s calls to me when he was spending his time, while on the state payroll, playing call-in radio games to win prizes.  If I had not been the one to answer her call, I know very well that she would have been told that this was a federal issue and there was nothing the state could do about it. She would then have been hung up on.

During my constituent services work at the legislature, even as a staunch Republican, I had learned that if I needed help for a veteran, and needed it now, the best office to call was that of Senator Amy Klobuchar. Her constituent services staff is excellent and responsive.

Less than a couple of hours after my call to the Senator’s office, her staff called me back. The service member had been released to his parents, was already on a plane heading home and the air ambulance was waiting to take him to Mayo Clinic. Within hours he would be back in his home state, with his mother and family, getting world class cancer care. His mother was in tears again when she called me back later that afternoon to say thank you.

Before my second bout with cancer and becoming permanently disabled from the back fractures caused by Multiple Myeloma, one of my professional goals was to run for elected office and finally have the authority to see that government functions in the people’s best interests not its own.

When I received my disability letter earlier this week, even though it has been obvious to even me for quite some time that I cannot work anymore due to my health issues, a profound sense of sadness enveloped me. Oh, I understand that I have to accept that it is not in God’s plan that I will ever again have the physical stamina to run for an elected political office. So, instead, I have decided that if I cannot participate in person to take care of others or help reform politics and government, I will just have to lead with my pen…just saying.

kate and I recount ballots

Picture from my civil service career. Kate Mohn and myself, with the Secretary of State’s office, walking  the final 3 Rejected Absentee Ballots from the Coleman-Franken recount, that needed to go to the three judge panel, to the secure location.  

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