Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Beautiful Mind: The Final Chapter

I was there to say good-bye to an old friend. And I had arrived a little early to express my sympathy to his former wife and a few family members and friends.

It was “disability” that had brought us together by chance many years ago. He was in need of a job and a serious mental illness (SMI) had derailed his career dreams. And I worked for an organization that just happened to be in the business of supporting people in finding a good job. After 30 years now, we were just friends. And we got together for lunch every month or so to catch up on what was happening in each other’s lives.

I knew he was terminally ill. And I’d been checking in with him more frequently of late. And then late one afternoon in May, his home phone was disconnected. So I knew something wasn’t right. I received a voice mail message at my home phone the next day confirming the sad news. On May 10, 2010, Dr. Daniel C. Brodhead had died from cancer at the age of 69 at a local hospice in the Twin Cities.

Dr. Dan and I shared a number of similar interests. Most importantly, we shared a strong passion about work and its fundamental importance to illness management and recovery of individuals living with SMI. Only five short years ago, I had shared Dan’s story and life-long battle to reclaim his career dreams. I titled my blog entry “A Beautiful Mind Revisited” and the piece was inspired by Ron Howard’s cinema masterpiece A Beautiful Mind. After seeing Howard’s movie, I was awestruck by the many life parallels of its main character, John Nash, and my good friend Dan.

More than 25 years ago now, Dan and I worked together on a groundbreaking program called Minnesota Mainstream. It was Dan’s vision to reconnect individuals with SMI to their career fields through the use of mentoring and customized employment practices. In the early 1980s, the use of social capital (i.e., recruiting and involving job mentors) and customized employment practices (i.e., self-employment strategies, negotiating jobs with business leaders to custom fit the interests, strengths, and skills of job seekers) was virtually unheard of.

With Dan as its original Program Manager, Minnesota Mainstream was launched and delivered successful employment outcomes into high paying jobs in the competitive labor force for hundreds of its program associates. Dan’s “brainchild” was featured as a promising practice in the Torrey Report, a national advocacy publication reporting on successful mental health practices and strategies. Indeed, Minnesota Mainstream had exceeded our wildest imaginations, and trust on me on this one--Dan could think big!

After a couple of successful years as Minnesota Mainstream’s manager, Dan decided to leave the program to pursue his own career development. And Dan looked to the many lessons learned through his Minnesota Mainstream experience. He tapped the powers of social networking by contacting colleagues he had graduated with from his Doctoral Program in Physics at Yale University many years ago. And by using his newly honed skills in customized and supported employment, Dan negotiated a job for himself with a former colleague who was now running the Physics Department at Texas A&M University. Dan negotiated a Post-Doctoral Fellowship position and customized the duties to his talents. The position involved working on problems in theoretical physics. Dan telecommuted from his home in suburban Minneapolis by tapping the powers of modern electronics. Through the use of his computer, e-mail, phone, and fax machine, Dan executed his job duties and maintained routine communications with his colleagues working in Texas.

After more than 30 years of unemployment or working sporadically in unskilled labor positions, Dan was finally doing what he loved best—working to solve classical problems in theoretical physics. He often shared his excitement with me about the sophisticated work he was doing, but frankly speaking, his mathematical formulas and physics concepts were way over my head! Dan worked in a customized job in the field of physics for seven years until his retirement. And afterwards, he continued to take on short-term projects to occupy his time.

I knew how much this job appointment at the university meant to Dan. He spoke with great satisfaction about coming full circle and overcoming the debilitating effects of an illness that had shattered his independence and career aspirations for much of his life. And he understood the importance of his contributions as a role model by demonstrating to others what could be accomplished in not giving up and working smart to defeat the social stigma associated with mental illness. Dan was very proud of his work with Minnesota Mainstream and he helped to pioneer new thinking and practices about career possibilities that break the proverbial glass ceiling for job seekers with SMI.

And so here I was sitting alone in the Chapel at the funeral service celebrating Dan’s life. I was seated among a medium sized crowd, a majority of whom I did not know. A number of touching eulogies were delivered by Dan’s family and friends. They were brutally honest about his mental illness and the challenges it brought into his life. With that said, people spoke about Dan’s unique zest for life, his self-deprecating sense of humor, those terrible jokes he abused us with, his love for music, reading, and poetry, and his unbridled love and dedication to family and friends.

And everyone spoke eloquently about the importance of his career! Each eulogy touched on Dan’s advancing beyond his illness to finally do the work that he was meant to do. It was abundantly clear that work was very important to Dan and it brought meaning, respect, and accomplishment into his life.

It was very moving for me to hear about the impact of Dan’s career achievements through the words, minds, and hearts of others who knew him best. I have no doubts that Dan would have preferred for his career journey to take on a much earlier, vertical trajectory into the workforce. However, suffice it to say that his employment at a major university did matter a great deal to him. Dan was brilliant in so many ways and this prestigious appointment as a Post-Doctoral Fellow challenged his vast imagination and intellectual capacities. I know this career achievement in the latter years of his life was very fulfilling and helped to lighten past disappointments.

In all candor, I learned more about mental illness and employment from Dr. Dan’s life experiences than any scholarly book or research study I’d ever read. He helped me to understand the importance of employment to illness recovery in ways that no one else could articulate it. Dan made significant contributions to our understanding about the power of social capital and customizing jobs and practices to reach better outcomes. Minnesota Mainstream was demonstrating these principles in its daily practice many years before the research and journal articles documented their fundamental importance.

Dr. Dan was very gracious about allowing me to share his story so I could inspire others to follow in his footsteps. And I’ve spoken to literally thousands of consumers and professionals about his incredible career journey. In a recent presentation I was making about customized employment practices, I shared the “Final Chapter” of Dan’s life. And quite unexpectedly, I found myself getting pretty emotional about it. I talked about Dan’s key lessons learned and how they were validated posthumously by family and friends at his funeral service.

You know, I‘m often told that employment is only a “choice” people with significant disabilities can make among many options. Well, indeed it is. And Dr. Daniel Brodhead taught me that it’s the clear, obvious choice if physical, social, intellectual, economical and emotional health is important to you.