Dr Judith Guedalia

'High Man' On The Totem Pole

Dr. Judith Guedalia and Chaim K.*

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures that produce them. Totem poles may recount familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events. Some poles are erected to celebrate cultural beliefs, but others are intended mostly as artistic presentations.
Totem poles were never objects of worship; the association with idol worship was an idea of local Christian missionaries. Very early European explorers made the same assumption, but later, others noted that totem poles were never treated reverently. They seemed only occasionally to generate allusions or illustrate stories and were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village.
Vertical order of the images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase "low man on the totem pole". This phrase is indicative of the most common belief governing order of importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. (From www.wikipedia.org: Wikepedia, the free encyclopedia; Stewart, Hillary (1993). Looking at totem poles; Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press.)
I am part of the Trauma Team (Psych/Social) of the Emergency Room (ER) here at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. As such, I unfortunately have a lot of experience with Mass Casualty Events (MCEs). Over the years I have developed a theory, which I call "The Totem-Pole Effect". It was developed after seeing the phenomenon of the injured sending professionals to care for others before themselves. "Go to him/her; she is more injured than I," is often heard as the lines of gurneys are awaiting triage (from the French; synonyms and related keywords: trier, to sort − triage in emergency departments, medical screening examination). My hypothesis for this altruistic response is that no one wants to be "low-man-on-the-totem pole".
How did this association of Native American (American Indian) lore pop into my consciousness when Chaim K. and I were in session? Chaim K. was 14 when a car hit him late one night between Purim and Pesach, on his way home from baking matzot. This was five-and-a-half years ago. Today, this SCI (spinal cord injured) young adult − a quadriplegic on a respirator who sits in a wheelchair − in no way resembles that adolescent. Well, maybe the twinkle in his eye as he prepares to tell me another joke has always been there and, notwithstanding Chaim K's problems, its light has not waned. Maybe his wishes are the same too, though today he would say, he has no more wishes, no more expectations of life. "What would you wish for?" he challenges me. "Marriage, children and being able to take an active part in my life," I answer with more confidence than I feel. How can any of us imagine what it must be like for Chaim K. or anyone else for that matter? And yet, don't we all − especially those of us in the helping professions − readily propound on what others should or should not do?
"Look at me!" Chaim K. challenges, "who do you think will marry me or, for that matter," with the mischievous glint in his eye, "who do you think I will want to marry?" "You would be surprised at the people who have disabilities that function in spite of them. So much of your life is a miracle; you should have been dead more than once, and yet here you are, picking on me," I say with a wink.
Not slow for the rejoinder, Chaim says: "I have a right to pick on you and you don't have one to pick on me." "Not so," I say, "that's why I get the big bucks. You have had a rough deal, no doubt about it, but you have also been given choices."
He looks at me quizzically. I am on a roll and go on, "You can decide to sit in that chair and make it and your room your whole life, or, you can look beyond yourself − not an easy task, I will say that, but one you are certainly capable of doing, and do something for the zulat − for the 'other,' and not just yourself."
"What do you think I can do, sitting here, not even breathing for myself?" he asks anger and frustration filling the room.

"Well," I say, "the articles we write together reach hundreds of people and from the feedback I have received, they touch people and make them realize things about themselves. Your words give chizuk (strength) to many, and I count myself among them."

Chaim looks at me askew.
"Seriously," I press on, "we will open an e-mail address for you, and I am sure people will write."
"But what do I say or do that is different from what everyone else does?"
Just as a small example, I recall our conversation before Tisha B'Av (the fast day of the Ninth of Av, which commemorates the burning of the Holy Temples). Chaim had come for his weekly appointment and told me that he was on his way to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial. "I feel that I am not sufficiently in the spirit of this day of mourning," he said, "the sights and memories of those people and their sacrifices," his noisy ever-present respirator lets him take a breath, "remembering the millions who were murdered with their families under such terrible conditions, makes me feel the loss of the Holy Temple more fully."
Chaim is a man to reckon with, a tower of strength, a "high man on the totem pole," don't you think?
Originally published in the Jewish Press on October 11, 2006.


Tags: Chaim K. | Jewish Press | Mass Casualty Events | MCEs | The Totem-Pole Effect