Lovell’s Food For Thought-The StarFish Story & Addressing Health Inequities

Making A Difference

6/11/2022, 12:39 p.m. | Updated on 6/12/2022, 3:41 p.m.
I thought I would share this story of the Starfish, adapted by MissKorang. Although we have made little progress in ...
Dr. Lovell A. Jones, Professor Emeritus University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center/Professor Emeritus UT Graduate School Of Biomedical Sciences/Texas A&M University Corpus Christi/Texas A&M School of Public Health

I thought I would share this story of the Starfish, adapted by MissKorang. Although we have made little progress in addressing health inequities, like the story of the starfish, we have had a significant impact on those we have reached. At the end of her version of the starfish story, MissKorang talks about Racism. It maybe that racism is to big a topic for the nation to grasp, having heard it being root cause of America’s problem. Turning a death ear to even listening to a something it really needs to consider. White America is still at the helm of this nation, whether we like it or not, and we need for them to not only listen but understand and act. To me, framing the discussion around health inequities may be a viable path.

When Gil Friedell and I approached Senator Arlen Spector about getting Congress to fund a study investigating NIH regarding equitable funding, his respond was to go after the big dog and not the pack, go after NCI. If you get Congress to provide funding to investigate NCI. the rest will as the big dog, the rest will follow. The IOM study was the shot across the bow and the rest is history. Every government agency created a health disparities entity because they didn’t want to be called in front of the Appropriations Committee. Unfortunately, in the 21st Century we had stalled. Maybe the starfish story may provide us a path to reach a critical mass rekindle the movement started in 1999.

When I read this Starfish story read it with addressing inequities in mind as MissKorang read it with addressing racism. I encourage you to do the same.

“An old man was doing his daily walk along the beach one morning, it was a beautiful day to be by the sea. The man was enjoying his alone time, enjoying nature and reflecting. Then he spotted a young boy crouched by the ocean, picking something up from the sand and throwing it into the sea.

It was not a busy day at the beach at all. In-fact, the man noticed it was just him and the boy. Fascinated by the boy’s actions, the man stopped to watch the boy for a while.

He noticed the boy kept scooping something up, running to the ocean and throwing it in. The man watched the boy repeat these actions again and again – stop, pick up, throw, move. Over and over. The man was indeed intrigued by the strange actions of the boy at the beach. “What could he possibly be doing?” The man asked himself. And so he walked closer to the boy and asked him.

What are you doing there boy?”

Making a Difference In Small Ways

“I am saving these stranded starfish” answered the boy. “If they stay on the beach any longer, they will dry up and die. I am putting them back into the ocean so they can live.” Then he picked one more starfish and threw it in, then another, and another.

The old man was silent for a while, watching the boy labor away. He didn’t understand the young lad’s enthusiasm and drive; it just didn’t make sense to him at all. Because life had taught him that if he was to spend time doing anything at all, it was better to spend it aiming for the stars, doing big things that made a difference with a bang.

“Young man” he said, “on this stretch of beach alone, there must be more than one hundred stranded starfish. Around the next corner, there must be at least one thousand more. This goes on for miles and miles and miles – I’ve done this walk every day for 10 years, and it’s always the same. There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”

It Makes A Difference To That One!

In response, and without missing a beat, the boy picked up a starfish and threw it into the water, saying, “well I just made a difference to that one.” Then he picked another and threw it, “and that one.” And so one after another, the boy picked and threw starfish into the lifesaving waters, each time repeating himself to the man, “it made a difference to that one, and that one, and now this one…” And on and on the boy went, making a difference one starfish at a time.

Make Your Mark

The starfish story teaches two important lessons; well-meaning people can discourage and stop you from helping or making a difference in small but important ways. And it also teaches the importance of small contributions.

“You don’t have the power to effect meaningful change”, “this is too big a problem for you”, “I know this problem very well, you cannot solve it.” Have you ever been told any of these? And did you buy into the pessimism?

You see, small contributions can have ripple effects that go far beyond what contributors can see, and so even though you may not see a huge, immediate impact, you are making a difference, helping reduce the magnitude of a problem and saving someone along the line.

Take the issue of racism for example, it is huge, old and rooted firmly in ways we cannot begin to image. But also imagine, if each parent in their own way decided to tackle the issue of racism and racial injustice in their home. would the roots weaken? Would it make a difference to classmates, teachers and friends? Would it eventually make a difference to society?

And also, just imagine if the man who stood idly by and offered unsolicited discouragement had saved one starfish each time he had walked that stretch of beach – he’d have saved 3,650 in ten years. But instead, he let 3,650 starfish go to their deaths because he didn’t believe it mattered.”

So the next time you get a chance to make a small difference, don’t think of the big picture. Just do it – after all, it might not make a difference to you, but to somebody else, it might.