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Published August 28, 2013, 10:00 PM

Positively Beautiful: Celebrating a life with few regrets

I lost a dear friend this month, Lesley Watson. She was 88 and lived in Seattle, where I did my residency training. Lesley was a patient, and I know we are supposed to have “boundaries” but over the many times I helped take care of her, she and I became close. I write about her with the permission of her family, who I also got to know over the years.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, INFORUM

I lost a dear friend this month, Lesley Watson.

She was 88 and lived in Seattle, where I did my residency training. Lesley was a patient, and I know we are supposed to have “boundaries” but over the many times I helped take care of her, she and I became close. I write about her with the permission of her family, who I also got to know over the years.

Lesley and her husband were successful business owners with several floral shops in the Seattle area. She also served as the executive assistant to Jeff Brotman, Costco chairman of the board. They had worked hard, owned a beautiful home and enjoyed a great life.

Lesley was severely injured in 1995. She and her husband were on a scenic drive along Highway 2 in western Washington, enjoying a sunny day through the forest. A huge tree toppled over, directly on their car.

Her husband was instantly killed, and Lesley suffered numerous injuries. Every bone in her face was broken. She was transported to Seattle’s Harborview Hospital, where she stayed for many weeks. Her initial facial reconstruction took more than 24 hours, and it was the first of many surgeries. I never did a complete count, but she likely required more than 30 procedures over the next two years.

Despite this devastating injury and the loss of her husband, I was struck by Lesley’s optimism and fierce determination to recover. We did our work to help her, but most importantly, she did hers mentally and physically.

I remember her “debut” at a niece’s wedding. It was the first time she was out in public several months after the accident. She still walked haltingly and had limited use of one arm. Her smile was crooked but warm. She chose her outfit carefully.

After the big event, she reported back, “It was lovely!”

I replied, “And so are you!”

I also remember her celebrating as she drove independently after months of occupational therapy. She shopped and shopped for a new car that was comfortable yet sporty. She bought it in bright red.

She moved to a high-rise senior living center in downtown Seattle. She was so grateful to Harborview Hospital and its doctors that she began having fundraiser tea parties for other residents of her community. She wanted to let them know about the good work being done just blocks away from their front door.

This hospital was the largest trauma center for the entire northwest corner of the U.S. and served the low-income population of the area as well. She donated a substantial portion of her retirement money to the hospital and was able to get a match through Costco.

She also had awesome Christmas parties. Her high-rise had a beautiful room on the top floor with a skyline view of the city. She had a standing reservation for the first Saturday of each December. In the 16 years I’ve been back Fargo, I’ve made it to Seattle for most of these wonderful parties, missing only when my son Grant was a newborn or I had a recent surgery.

She was delighted when I brought Grant to the party for the first time. He had just learned to walk and was toddling around, getting in to all kinds of trouble. He mingled well with the 80-plus-year-old crowd!

She and her sister, Janet, also made a brave trip to Fargo several years ago. We had a pig roast at my husband’s farm. She climbed the ladder of the combine for a John Deere photo op, and we spent a day at my parent’s lake cabin.

Travel wasn’t easy for her, but she wanted to experience life despite limitations caused by the accident. I heard about her cruises and other adventures through the years.

I was planning my annual Seattle pilgrimage three weeks ago and called to check the date for the Christmas party. I hadn’t talked to Lesley since last winter and was excited to catch up. Her sister Janet answered and let me know Lesley was in the hospital but had stabilized. The party was still on for Dec. 7, but I got word the next day that she had taken a turn for the worse and passed away that night.

A recent book by Australian hospice worker Bronnie Ware suggests that many of us have regrets as we reach the end of our lives. These were the common themes she encountered:

- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.

- I wish I didn’t work so hard.

- I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

- I wish I had let myself be happier.

Wow, I’m four for five. My conversations with Lesley were more newsy updates, not deep introspection. Reflecting back on her incredible life, I wished I’d asked more questions and expressed my gratitude and admiration.

But I did learn so much from how she lived her life. It occurred to me that she came so close to death after her accident that she used the remaining years to live a life with few, if any, regrets.

Thank you, Lesley.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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