In the Public Interest

One of my dearest friends died recently; she was only 58 years old. Her funeral was a testament to the profound impact her life had on those for whom she cared, including her church, community and those in need throughout the world. Along with several of our mutual friends, I lamented that she devoted so much of her time and energy to helping others that

she often failed to adequately care for herself. She was overweight, highly stressed and didn't exercise or eat a healthy diet. I regret that I didn't say or do more to encourage her to make changes that might have improved her health.

My friend was highly educated (close to completing her PhD in psychology) and gainfully employed but without health insurance and essentially poor. By the time she put aside her embarrassment and fear, and overcame the obstacles to seek medical attention, it was too late. She died of a heart attack.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, with one in three women dying of such a cause. Minority and low-income populations, including 49 percent of African-American women, are disproportionately burdened by death and disability from cardiovascular disease. Many people, especially women, fail to seek timely treatment because they do not recognize their symptoms as related to heart problems. Such symptoms may include neck and shoulder pain, abdominal discomfort and excessive fatigue. My friend thought she had food poisoning.

In 2006 and 2007, approximately one in three people under age 65 was uninsured at least part of the time. Racial and ethnic minorities were more likely to be uninsured, and almost 80 percent of those without health insurance during that period were from working families. My friend's death brought with it a keen awareness of the fragility of our brief lives. Such questions as "What are the things I want to do before I die?" and "For what do I hope to be remembered?" have become increasingly relevant at this stage of my life. Although I find myself angry over a major loss that could probably have been prevented, I also am inspired by the example of a life lived in service to others. Those touched by her good works and great spirit shared their profound gratitude as they recounted her important contributions to their lives. Listening, I felt compelled to wonder what would be said about me. My friend's last gift to those who loved her was to inspire us to commit ourselves to bring about positive change for us all.

We must not shy away from our responsibilities as leaders in our field and in society. We must embrace it. We can no longer turn to those who we think have more knowledge and experience to effect change that makes the world a better place; that responsibility is now ours. Those of us working in the area of public interest are consistently creating mechanisms and avenues to bring the power of psychology to society's problems. Many of you work along with those of us in APA toward similar goals through your volunteer work on APA governance groups, your involvement in divisions and state associations and your research and practice. Thank you.

I realize the topic I have chosen for this column is of a more personal nature than you might have expected to find here. I chose to share a bit of her story as a tribute to my friend, because I know that she would want her experience to be used to inspire us to act in ways that improve our lives and those of others. Perhaps those who read this will be reminded that tomorrow isn't promised, and we must start now if we want to make a difference.