Grateful for life

Grateful for life

In 1973, a nursing aide in Birmingham, Alabama, treated a young boy with care and kindness, and he never forgot.

Gary Bentley and nurse, the old photo

Gary Bentley as ten-year old boy, and Kathy Henricks as nurse’s aide, back in 1973

Gary Bentley was ten years old, and he had just had open-heart surgery to repair a hole in his left ventricle. Doctors only discovered that the hole was still there, even though it was supposed to have sealed as he grew up, when Gary and his six brothers and sisters were taken from their abusive, alcoholic father and placed into foster homes. It was a miracle he had survived and the operation left a giant scar all down his chest, but there was one thing that comforted the boy: the kindness and compassion of a nurse’s aide called Kathy. “For some reason, she was really sweet to me, and I looked forward to her coming in every day,” Gary told 42 years later. She would bring small gifts and treats, he recounted, and “when they moved me off her floor, man, I cried.” The nurse was the first person to ever be kind to him, his wife says.

“I guess she just saw that I needed a friend,” he said, but he kept the memory at heart even as he passed through three foster homes. All he knew, however, was her first name, and all he had was a photo of the two of them together. Gary is now a successful turtle farmer. “I’ve always wondered what happened to her, and wondered why she was so nice to me,” he explained. “I would just like to tell her thank you. Your act of kindness many years ago – it was appreciated. I haven’t forgot it, and I never will forget.”

Thanks to social media, he could finally tell her in person this year. Gary and his wife posted the old photo on Facebook, and it didn’t take long to find her. “I know the nurse in the picture and she is my mom!” someone soon e-mailed. Her full name turned out to be Kathy Henricks, and she’s still a nurse, over four decades later, still working in cardiology. In fact, three of her children work in health care too. “I can remember her saying, ‘a patient is already probably having one of their worst days, .. so its important to treat beyond medicine – with kindness’,” one of them recounted.

Kathy still remembered Gary too. At the time she was six months away from graduation, working part time to put herself through school. She’d had “absolutely” no idea how much of an impact she was making: “I didn’t know about Gary’s situation, I just saw a little boy going through a surgery that would be tough for anyone”. The fact that anybody “would go to the depths that he did to try to locate me, to thank me, it was just incredible”. But he did, and one Sunday afternoon they met again. Gary and his wife Gwen brought a bouquet of flowers – and that old photo of him and the nurse, framed.