Counselor facing death models grace, gratitude

December 3, 2013 

We see it over and over again in our journey through life: Bad things happening to good people.

Good luck trying to make sense of it. For some, religion helps, or humor, or love. But in the end, the really tragic blows in life are, for me at least, inexplicable, unfathomable, the luck of the draw.

Here I sit, writing a column about one of those good people. His name is Steve Macuk. He’s an Olympia-based clinical psychologist who’s devoted much of his professional and spare time to helping people through their own grief, loss and tragedy, both in private practice and as co-founder of the Mental Health Access Program, a community-based program to improve access to mental health services for uninsured and underinsured adults in South Sound.

Macuk is a nice guy — funny, smart, compassionate and idealistic. He’s a devoted husband and father who makes friends easily. He’s improved the lives of many through his counsel.

He’s leaning heavily upon these attributes and assets these days. A year ago, he was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. It’s a sucker punch, a game-changer, a sudden face-off with mortality.

As his energy level and mobility wane, Macuk has had to cut back on his activities — no easy task for someone known for a high octane approach to life. He no longer sees clients in private practice or at the Wednesday night free mental health clinic. But he’s still engaged with friends and family. He’s doing the best he can.

“Steve’s moving forward in the world with his heart and his sense of humor,” noted Sherwin Cotler, another Olympia clinical psychologist and co-founder of the community mental health clinic. He’s also one of Macuk’s best friends.

Cotler always figured that he, age 72, would step away from the clinic before Macuk, who is 54. It doesn’t look like that’s how it will work.

By any measure, the clinic has been a success. Since it opened in May 2007, more than 500 patients have received free counseling from 53 clinical volunteers whose 5,000 hours of service are valued at more than $600,000. This would not have happened without the tag team of Macuk and Cotler, joined by Holly Greenwood, director of community development for the clinic’s sponsor — CHOICE Regional Health Network.

It’s not just the patients who have benefitted from the program. So have the therapists, who share a meal and debrief each night after seeing patients, sharing their experiences, their therapy techniques, their successes and their challenges.

About 25 clinic volunteers gathered on a recent Friday night at Trinacria Ristorante Italiano in downtown Olympia to celebrate the clinic’s successes and pay tribute to Macuk.

“Through your tenacity, you helped bring together a cadre of therapists in a very special way,” Cotler said, adding: “Love isn’t love until you’ve given it away.”

The day before the dinner, I met with Macuk, Cotler and Macuk’s son, Anthony, who, along with his sister, Grace, have put young-adult career pursuits on hold to come home and care for their dad. This has allowed their mother, Binda Douglas — she met Macuk in 1978 when they were freshmen at the University of Maryland — to keep working as office manager at the Thurston County Food Bank.

“It’s been challenging — there’s a lot to learn about his illness,” the thoughtful son said. “But this is where my sister and I should be. I’ll look back on it and say: ‘I’m glad we were there.’”

Macuk spoke to me about how he’s confronted his illness, and how grateful he is for all the support of family and friends.

“I was really unlucky to get brain cancer,” he reflected. “But it’s caused me to think about the times when I have been lucky in life.”

On the eve of the tribute dinner, he said he wanted people to feel comfortable around him and accept his reality. He asked me to give him a grade at the end of the dinner on how well he interacted with the crowd.

Well, he did just fine. His hearty appetite was on display. He joked and interrupted people when they gave testimonials. He expressed gratitude and urged his colleagues to keep the clinic running without him.

The night was special for another reason. I got to eat dinner with Sam Bradley, who’s been a practicing clinical psychologist in Olympia since 1974 — one of the first to hang his shingle in the capital city.

Five years ago, Bradley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, yet another prime example of how bad things happen to good people. At 74, Bradley still sees clients once a week, and volunteers at the community mental health clinic.

“It’s tragic what’s happening to him,” Bradley said of Macuk. “He’s such a great guy.” I could — I will — say the same about Sam.

I gave Macuk a grade of “9” out of “10” that Friday night. Nobody gets a 10, because nobody is perfect, not even Steve Macuk.

HOW TO HELP

What: Dinner and fundraiser for Steve Macuk. When: 6-9 p.m., Dec. 16

Where: Dockside Bistro, Olympia. More: Holly Greenwood, greenwoodh @crhn.org.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@thelympian.com

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