It happened 20 years ago, Ken was with his wife and their two-year-old daughter, in an isolated, snow-packed campground in Oregon, with a comatose vehicle. They were on a journey to celebrate the completion of Ken’s second year of residency training, but his medical savvy was of no use to the recreational vehicle they had rented for the trip.
Ken remembers he had just awakened, fumbled around with the light switch, and been greeted with darkness. He tried the ignition. No response. He and his wife concluded that the battery was dead. Ken decided to hike back to the main highway, several miles away, while his wife stayed with their daughter.
Two hours later, Ken arrived at the highway and flagged down a logging truck, which let him off at the closest gas station. However, the place was closed as it was Sunday morning. But there was a pay phone and a tattered phone book. Ken called the only automotive service company located in the next town, some 20 miles away.
Bob answered and listened as Ken explained his predicament. “No problem,” he said as Ken gave his location. “I’m usually closed on Sundays, but I can be there in about half an hour.” Ken was relieved that Bob was coming, but he was also mindful of how much Bob would charge.
Bob arrived in his red wrecker, and they drove to the campground. As Ken got out from the tow truck, he turned around and watched in utter amazement as Bob leveraged himself out of the truck on braces and clutches. He was a paraplegic!
Bob made his way over to the camper and checked on the vehicle. “Yep, it’s just a dead battery. A little jump start and you’ll be on your way.” Bob restored the battery, and while it was recharging, he entertained Ken’s daughter with magic tricks. He even pulled a dollar out of his ear and gave it to her.
As Bob was putting his jumper cables back into the truck, Ken asked how much the cost was. To his astonishment, Bob replied, “Oh, nothing.”
“I need to pay you something,” Ken insisted.
“No,” Bob reiterated. “Back in Vietnam, someone helped me out of a worse situation than this when I lost my legs, and that guy told me to just pass it on. So you don’t owe me anything. Just remember, whenever you get the chance, you pass it on.”
Fast-forwarded 20 years to a medical office nowadays, where Ken frequently trains medical students. Cindy, a second-year student from an out-of-state school, has come to spend a month with Ken so that she can stay with her mother, who lives in the area. They have just finished seeing a patient whose life has been ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse. Cindy and Ken are in the nurses’ station discussing possible treatment options, and suddenly Ken notices tears welling up in Cindy’s eyes. “Are you uncomfortable talking about this sort of thing?” Ken asked.
“No,” Cindy sobbed. “It’s just that my mother could be that patient. She has the same problem.”
They spent the lunch hour secluded in the conference room, discussing the tragic history of Cindy’s alcoholic mother. Tearfully and painfully, Cindy bared her soul as she recounted the years of anger, embarrassment and hostility that had characterized her family’s existence.
Ken offered Cindy the hope of getting her mother into treatment, and they arranged for her mom to meet with a trained counselor. After strong encouragement from the other family members, Cindy’s mom readily consented to treatment. She went into the hospital for several weeks and emerged a new and changed person. Cindy’s family had been on the verge of disintegration; for the first time, they experienced a glimmer of hope.
“How can I ever repay you?” Cindy asked Ken. Thought back to that comatose camper in the snowbound campground and Bob, Ken said, “Just pass it on.”