This article from yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer is a must read – the story of a man who chose to rise above his own grief and use his experience to better his life and the lives of those around him. Enjoy!
Tom Casey’s family tree casts a dark shadow. Heart disease infected virtually every branch. Heart attacks and strokes claimed the lives of both his father and mother before they were 60. They died within a year of each other, when Casey was only 24.
It was, he says, “a wake-up call.”
Casey, who grew up in Ardmore and went to Monsignor Bonner, St. Joe’s, and Temple University School of Medicine, stopped smoking. He began exercising – biking, running, swimming. He reformed his diet and monitored his blood pressure and cholesterol.
Healing and the Mind, Bill Moyers’ 1993 PBS special, fascinated him. He was receptive to the gospel of cardiologist Dean Ornish, who recommends yoga and meditation for reducing stress and managing hypertension. He was impressed by the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, whose studies showed that Buddhist-based “mindfulness” not only lowers stress but also improves the quality of life of people with cancer, severe pain, and chronic heart and lung disease.
In the mid-1990s, friends invited Casey to yoga class. It was a revelation.
“I loved it,” Casey says. “It was tremendous fun, and I felt great afterward.”
Clumsy at ball sports, Casey discovered, to his delight, that he was adept at yoga (though he had to tame his initial Type-A tendency to push through the poses). He began attending classes four days a week.
Yoga appealed to him because it provided the framework and discipline for achieving mindfulness, which Casey, quoting Kabat-Zinn, defines as “paying attention in the prese
nt moment on purpose.” Yoga made him more relaxed, more “trusting in the unfolding of things.”
It was good for his heart, he knew, and he was beginning to suspect it would be good also for his work as a neurodevelopmental pediatrician.
Casey, a board-certified private practitioner who’s on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, describes his specialty as “halfway between neurology and psychiatry.” His patients are kids with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning and developmental disorders, and behavioral problems.
Inspired by a mindfulness course taught by Diane Reibel of Thomas Jefferson University, Casey, in 1999, attended a weeklong mindfulness retreat in California. It was, he says, “a high,” and he returned home with “a profound sense of connectedness.”
It made me more attuned to what’s going on in the present moment,” Casey says. “It changed the way I practice.”
Casey is now less agenda-driven, more inclined to respond to the immediate emotional climate. With jumpy children, he’ll sometimes use yoga techniques – asking them to breathe deeply and deliberately like Darth Vader, or to arch their backs like a cat, stretch like a dog – to focus their attention.
But the lessons of mindfulness are most valuable for the parents of his young patients, Casey believes.
Mindfulness promotes self-awareness and awareness of others. It stimulates that part of the brain – the insular cortex – that helps you perceive and regulate how your body is feeling. By reducing your own stress, you can reduce the stress of others.
Casey uses the terms stress reactivity and emotional reactivity. Simply put, emotional states are contagious. If you’re anxious and upset, those around you may become anxious and upset as well. Through what Casey calls the “mirror neuron system,” we mimic the behavior we see.
For the parents of difficult children, reducing stress is crucial, not only for the parents’ well-being, but also for the progress of their children. “Stress shuts down new learning,” Casey says. “When you’re geared up for combat, no learning occurs.”
Mindfulness enhances attention, concentration, and self-control – all essential learning tools. It also fosters empathy, the foundation of social connection.
“If you want to improve kids’ learning, self-regulation, social connectivity, and emotional well-being,” Casey declares, “you need to develop the skills of mindfulness.”
Casey, who has led classes in yoga and meditation, wants to teach the parents of “children with developmental challenges” how to achieve mindfulness. His article of faith: “If the parents learn mindfulness, their children will benefit.”
He envisions this as the next chapter, an encore career. He is 64 now, and has lived four years longer than his parents. His heart is strong and healthy, in part because of his own success at mindfully managing stress.