I attended Penn State way back in the 1970s when Joe Paterno was a mere two decades into his stint as football coach. I had gone to a rural high school in Pennsylvania Dutch country with so few students we couldn't field a varsity team, so my interest in the sport was minimal when I arrived in Happy Valley.
But football was not something you could ignore in State College, Pa.; in the fall of my freshman year I became a huge fan, and remained so in the years after graduation. I was proud to root for the Nittany Lions not only because nearly every season they fielded a competitive — sometimes a championship — team, but also because those teams consistently had among the highest graduation rates in the NCAA, because the modesty of the players stood in stark contrast to the crass behavior exhibited by athletes elsewhere, and because the disheveled man in the thick eyeglasses pacing up and down the sidelines would go out of his way off-field to promote the university as a center of academics over athletics, backing up those words with millions of dollars in donations to promote learning there.
As we all know, at a certain point in his life Joe Paterno made a horrible mistake. What he thought was the correct reaction to an appalling situation wasn't nearly so, and a series of shattering deeds that might have been forestalled was not. The tragedy is manifest, most terribly for the young victims, and they surely have our deepest sympathies. But I'll risk the wrath of some readers by contending that the tragedy extends also to the man who had come to be known simply as JoePa. One person told me, "I have no mercy for Paterno, I only wish mercy for those kids." She and many others say he deserved to go from 40 or so years on a pedestal to ending his days in ignominy. Pardon me if I respectfully disagree.
What I've been trying to figure out since the scandal at my alma mater broke last fall and now with the death of Paterno Sunday is what lessons, if any, we can apply to our own lives, and even to the profession of health care. It's a stretch, but the best I can come up with is this: That health care, like a college football program or a university — like nearly every enterprise we humans undertake, whether it's as frivolous as a game revolving around a pigskin or as imperative as looking after the vulnerable among us — is a communal effort. It depends on hard work and cooperation, and on constant vigilance at all levels to make sure the endeavor and everyone involved in it have the opportunity to thrive.
It also begs for an understanding that some if not all of us, even the most well-meaning, will, at some point in our lives, make mistakes, and some of those mistakes will have profound consequences. The best we can hope for is to learn, to raise our collective consciousness so that similar mistakes and the tragedies engendered by them never occur again. That kind of learning can't take place in an atmosphere of sanctimony and shame. Health care demands compassion, for our patients and for each other. It's what defines the profession. It ought to define all professions. It ought to define us all.
Bill Santamour is managing editor of Hospitals & Health Networks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.