Faces of Liver Disease
Sharing your experience can provide hope and comfort to others in the liver community.
“If you need something done, ask a busy person to do it…” Anonymous Volunteer Coordinator
At age 14 Martha Shea walked the one and a half mile from her house to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London Connecticut and became a volunteer. She hasn’t stopped volunteering since.
“I filed slides and learned to wash glassware. I just soaked up knowledge,” remembers Martha.
She worked from 8-12 every Saturday in the clinical lab for several years. Her learning by osmosis really paid off when she enlisted in the Air Force at 20 and was able to by-pass 14 months of classes.
After 4 years of active enlistment, Martha went back to school and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physiology which she followed with degree in Laboratory Science from the US Air Force.
Just as Martha was graduating and looking for a full-time position, Dr. Roberto Grozsmann, a pioneer in animal models of liver disease research, was putting together the new team for his research lab. Martha became one of his lab technicians in 1979. While working full time in Dr. Grozsmann’s research lab, Martha was also serving in the Reserves two weekends a month, being a devoted wife and raising the daughter that she gave birth to in 1980.
Inspired by her work with liver disease research and desiring to engage more fully with patients, Martha went back to school for her Nursing degree in 1987. True to form, she continued to work part-time at Dr. Grozsmann’s lab while in school.
By the time Martha had become an RN, Dr. Grozsmann had received a special grant to conduct international research protocols on the treatment of portal hypertension and cirrhosis. Armed with her new skills and degree, Martha was poised to become the Nurse Manager of all research protocols in Dr. Grozsmann’s lab. “I was the only nurse and I had the qualifications,” says Martha.” I didn't start out being passionate about liver disease treatment and prevention, but Dr. Groszmann and I clicked. I had the skills he needed.” As it turns out, Martha would serve in this position for almost 20 years, leaving only for a 10 month tour of duty in Desert Storm.
As if her life of service was not already complete with the roles of Mother, Reservist, and RN, Martha continued her dedication to volunteering through out all of her training and the establishment of her career. She became the coach of her daughter’s softball team and joined the volunteer corps of Roaring 20’ Classic Car Club, an organization that raises money for a state- run training facility for mentally challenged adults.
Her extensive work on liver disease with Dr. Grozsmann, and later Dr. Guadalupe Garcia as well, eventually led Martha to the American Liver Foundation and she became and ALF Volunteer in 1999. At that time, the Connecticut Division had just opened its offices and Division Vice-President Joann Thompson had numerous projects that required support.
Martha’s first ALF volunteer duties were working Health Fairs and helping organize the Liver Life Walk—two activities that she continues to be involved with even 10 years later. Her background as a nurse made people especially receptive to her insights at health fairs and her organizational skills at the Nurse Manager of the research lab were ideal for coordinating successful Walk teams.
In 2001, the VA hospital in Connecticut received special government funding for a Hepatitis Resource center. Partnering with Dr. Garcia, Martha helped get the center running and now currently serves as the Head Nurse. In addition to managing all operation protocols, Martha began counseling Hepatitis C and transplant patients. In the course of working with them, it became clear that the patients were sorely in need of some kind of support group.
With support from ALF, Martha started the first support group for Hep C patients at the VA hospital. The rewards for this work go straight to her heart: “I am so touched when a patient comes back to me after a procedure or a transplant and tells me how much some little thing that I said or did helped them get through the scary times when they did not think they would make it,” Martha shares.
At this point in her story, many of us may be wondering where does Martha find the time and energy to keep up her volunteering after so many years of such demanding professions of medical and family service? One key to her success is the support of her loving husband, Jim. Jim is also a committed volunteer (both with Roaring 20’s and ALF)—On more than one occasion the late night or early morning has found him helping to load boxes, stuff envelopes, and fill baskets. When asked about the source of her inspiration Martha answers with a quote from the classic inspirational read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half- asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that givesyou purpose and meaning.'
Martha is now fully retired from the Armed Forces. When the Hepatitis Resource Center opened in 2001, she put in the necessary paper work. She knew that running this center was her calling and would require total commitment. A week after she put in her retirement request, her Reservist division was called up for a tour in Afghanistan.
Eight years into the Hepatitis Resource Center and Support Group, Martha’s enthusiasm for helping patients with Liver Disease is still going strong. She served as Chair for the Liver Life Walk (LLW) Committee for the Connecticut Division for 2 years running and has now transitioned to the position of LLW “Godmother” because of her dedication to ensuring the success of the event regardless of whatever title or position she has. When Joann Thompson, the Connecticut Division Vice-President, needs a challenging time-slot filled for a Health Fair, Martha signs up to man the booth for the entire day and solves the problem. When asked about her special traits as a volunteer, one colleague responds,”Martha makes things happen.”
In light of her many years of service and the recognition and rewards that she has received for her volunteer work, Martha’s focus on the people she is helping has remained constant. When asked one thing that she would tell people based on all of her volunteer work with liver disease patients, Martha simply answers,”Be a donor. Help someone. You will not need your liver in heaven.”