By Marina Najjar
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
For most patients and volunteers that come through Doctors without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine (DWW), Lynn Matis is the incredibly kind and comforting woman who directs the flow of the park clinics. As the first face that patients see, Lynn helps to connect the bridge between the patients and volunteers. Lynn’s position at the triage table in the parks gives her a unique front-line perspective, which allows her to interact with both the healthy and sick individuals who pass by the DWW yellow rope. The combination of Lynn’s placement at the front line of the clinic, as well as her sweet and inviting demeanor, has allowed her to become what some might call the eyes and ears of the DWW park clinics.
But while nearly every patient and volunteer has interacted with her, not many know about Lynn herself. A few weeks ago, the surprisingly shy Lynn granted me the opportunity to interview her and share some of her story.
Lynn, who has worked as a marriage and family therapist (MFT) for the past 30 years, described her favorite aspect of her work: “I love working with communication between people—therapy is a part of that, and I get to see ‘up close’ results. I am committed to helping families and couples work out difficulties.” As for her personal growth, she said that she loves “constantly learning to ask the questions that lead the individual to their own insights, goals, and true desires.” When I asked her what inspired her to become an MFT, she responded, “I was teaching elementary school in Colorado and was drawn into some of the emotional issues of my young charges. ‘Why do they get help when they are at the end of the school journey (high school) rather than working with them early on?’ That is what started me on the journey of being a psychologist. My journey was interrupted by moving back to Durango, Colorado with my ex-husband and we built and opened a mountaineering store (this was 40+ years ago). This was an incredible experience and we both learned so much about life, people, and business. We specialized in backcountry skiing and snow camping, climbing, winter mountaineering, cross-country skiing and trekking. We were successful, learned a lot, and had a lot of fun! The store is still going strong.”
It makes sense that Lynn owned and ran such a sporty and adventure-centered store since she loves being outside. Her favorite hobbies include hiking, walking, swimming, boogie boarding, camping…and of course, traveling. Lynn reported that she has visited about 15-18 countries outside the US. “I love experiencing other cultures and always try to do something in other countries besides tourism; like take a cooking course, work on a sailboat, volunteer in any way I can, etc.” Amazing! Lynn was born in Panama, has been on numerous Global Brigades trips around the world, and has visited an elephant orphanage in Kenya, just to name a few incredible things she has done!
Hearing about her unique stories and outlook on her traveling experiences had me questioning what brought Lynn to Santa Barbara. “I came to Santa Barbara to finish my masters in clinical psychology. I had left Colorado and started school in San Francisco. I was also working for a brokerage firm that traded on the New York stock exchange. I had a hard time managing the intensity of the stock market and learning the theories of psychology at the same time. So I came to Santa Barbara to take a workshop on mind body theory and decided to give up life in San Francisco and move,” she told me. “Here I am,” and how lucky we are!
But for Lynn, her passion for the underserved started before she moved to Santa Barbara and joined DWW. For Lynn, it sparked in San Francisco when a growing fear started to consume her: a fear of becoming homeless. Lynn described how the distress would cause nightmares, but inspired her to work harder and harder. As the fear grew, Lynn decided to do something not many would: she went out to the streets of San Francisco and sat down with some houseless women and talked to them. She asked them about their lives, about how they came to be on the streets, what they had learned there, what their experiences had been. And Lynn learned just how incredible and resilient the women were. While most people choose to run away from what they fear, Lynn went directly to the people living through what she most dreaded.
Her experience in San Francisco stuck with her, and when she heard members of DWW give a talk about the organization years after she had moved to Santa Barbara, she knew it would be a perfect fit. And for the last 9 years, Lynn has continued to be inspired by the people she sees in the park. “It feels so right for me to be doing this,” she expressed. She told me how a simple smile or success story from a patient can make her day, and the student volunteers in DWW give her “hope for the future of medicine.” There’s rarely a Wednesday or Thursday night that Lynn goes home and does not have a heart full of joy.
Lynn’s dedication to the program goes above and beyond the call of duty. While Lynn says that she loves hearing about our patients’ success stories, she’s also had first-hand contribution to a lot of these successes. For example, there is a patient that Lynn used to visit once a week for several years in order to drop off his medication. That was until Lynn’s tireless efforts to get a grant for a machine that would dispense the medicine for him were successful! She saw my dumbstruck face and said, “If I stepped down, who would step up?” And instead of taking credit for such incredible work, Lynn made sure to emphasize, “It’s not me, it’s WE.” She loves the phrase “It takes a village” to describe the unique ways in which everyone comes together to get a clinic running, to get a patient into housing, to provide healthcare for the most vulnerable in Santa Barbara.
With so many different components working to bring the park clinics together, Lynn continually stressed the importance of the student population in DWW. She loves working with and watching them work. “Their interest, compassion, and dedication is so inspiring.” As she looks around the clinic, Lynn can’t help but notice how open and receptive our patients are to the students. “The students are a friendly smile and an open conduit for the start of communication about healthcare and meeting the needs of the population we serve. They are such a vital part of overall success of this program.” She further emphasized that, “The students are very helpful in the trust building that goes on between DWW and the population we serve.” Lynn’s passion for the student volunteers is so evident in her voice when she talks about DWW. She loves talking about the successes of students that have gone through DWW and develop a new passion for healthcare. Our student volunteers over the years not only continue to inspire her, but also give her great hope for the future and healthcare.
With so much experience behind her, I asked Lynn what she had learned that she would want to pass onto new volunteers. She reassured me that she is still learning and working to better her interactions. For example, she stressed the importance of learning people’s names and how she wishes she were a bit better at it. As for my question, her reply was perfect: “Come with curiosity and your heart… Listen and watch, don’t talk a lot. Ask a lot of open ended questions, and if someone seems like they don’t want to talk, stop…Just be with them… Be aware of your surroundings and circumstances. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be directed at you…We never know what is going on in a patient’s head… [The experience and what is to be learned from it] evolves; it unfolds as you go…I’ve learned to just listen.” What incredible advice! It directly reflects her role as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the park clinics!
The quote by MLK at the top is one of Lynn’s favorite quotes. Lynn is an inspirational example of what living this way looks like. Thank you, Lynn, for inspiring and encouraging so many volunteers and patients!
Take time the next time you see Lynn to thank her for all that she does for Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine!