Normalcy is the projection of a person’s story onto the world around them. It’s a state of being loaded with acceptance of a familiar reality. Wherever you grew up, however you grew up, you probably look back on your childhood and think, overall, things were pretty normal. Then we build up these subconscious blinders, which may lead to looking at things as you want to remember them and not as they truly are. When Mary Landry took an honest look at Madison, past the celebrated university, the communal nature of area farmers’ markets, and the egalitarian efforts of local businesses and organizations, she saw a need in women’s health that had become so normal for Madison, nobody really wanted to talk about it.
Mary grew up in Monona. She went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, did her undergraduate work there along with her medical training and OB/GYN residency. Now she’s an OB/GYN for UW Health; works for the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus serving undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; and is a faculty professor with the UW School of Medicine. To say she knows Madison well would be like saying Big Bird might be able to tell me how to get to Sesame Street. But that’s not to say she always thought she’d spend the rest of her life in the Greater Madison area.
Like many health professionals, Mary considered taking her knowledge and expertise to other countries. “I had done some service work through a couple of organizations down in Honduras and Haiti, and I was kind of getting ready to decide where am I going next in the world. And it was sort of that perfect storm. Madison is my home. I can go to other parts of the world to find medical need and provide service, or I can open up my eyes and look honestly at my community and say, ‘I can do it here.’”
What it took for Mary to give Madison an honest look was an OB/GYN resident from the Chicago area who worked in a low-resource clinic for uninsured women while in medical school. The resident physician was familiar with how uninsured women get their cancer prevented by outpatient procedures in Chicago, but in the high-resource city of Madison, things weren’t so straightforward. When the resident came to Mary’s rotation, Mary had recently admitted a patient who was hemorrhaging from advanced cervical cancer. Four months after the patient presented for care, she died. “Where do women go who don’t have insurance?” the resident asked. Mary knew, having been in the Madison area her whole life with all her training, and answered, “There is nowhere.”
Reality presented Mary with a choice: accept that things are functioning under the parameters of normalcy or create an answer to the resident’s question.
After trying to come up with a solution that would satisfy the needs of the community while addressing the immediacy of the issue, Mary opted for what she saw the most efficient answer and started Share the Health, a nonprofit designed for uninsured women who need very procedure-oriented or high-level consultative services from OB/GYNs. Share the Health is composed of volunteer physicians, pathologists, staff at UW hospitals who prep the biopsies, ultrasonographers, nurses, lab techs, physical therapists, medical assistants, and interpreters. These are all people who saw what Mary showed them and knew it needed to change, sacrificing their time after work to increase the overall health of Greater Madison area residents.
Share the Health is so much more than a nonprofit in Mary’s eyes. It’s a tool to educate and affect people all over the world by being “glocal”—an idea coined by the past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Glocal is global health work done at a local level. UW–Madison trains students from all over the world, and these medical students, public-health graduate students, and OB/GYN residents have oftentimes been included in Share the Health. “So these learners, these infant doctors, are being exposed to how you can, outside of usual systems, think outside the box and solve the problems and be the voice against anyone who might say, ‘We don’t have a need.’ Yeah, we do.” When the vision and fundamental structure of Share the Health become familiar to Mary’s students and residents, the ideas reach as far as they take them.
But Share the Health has another function for Mary: connecting with younger people who want to make a difference. Mary is most proud of her very broad collaborations with high school students and undergrads who’ve been energized after hearing the stories of people ending up with cancer that is 100 percent preventable. “It keeps me going,” Mary says. Students have put together yoga fundraisers and 5k runs to raise money for the nonprofit, turning their empathy into action.
What Mary has done with her nonprofit demonstrates the altruistic side of networking and connecting with people. It seems to me that by connecting to so many persons and organizations, Mary has more effectively connected with the community. She has trouble turning down an opportunity to connect, often finding herself mentoring others even though she might not have a lot of spare time. All that aside, working to connect with others, for Mary, is “a really good reason to be a good person.”
All that said, I don’t think Mary sees herself as an exception. “It’s the rare person that walks their path of life and doesn’t make a positive impact on the world somehow.” She sees how her idea of normal has been dissolved to reveal her new truth—a more honest truth. “I just have, I will say, a privilege because I am surrounded by a whole bunch of people who inspire me to be better. And I have a fundamental desire to be better. And my definition of being better is not centered on me or my family at this middle part of my life. It is all about making other people have the ability to live their lives better.”
Be inspired to be better and you might be surprised how far your influence travels.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.