Because she could: Marilyn Shine loved her work until she was stopped by a line she wouldn't cross
by JUDSON MEAD
published in Mosaics, Spring 2013
“I loved the excitement. I never knew who was coming through the door. I was a very shy child, but at work I could stand there and say ‘how can I help you?’ to an out-of-control patient. You couldn’t be afraid.”
That’s how Marilyn Shine (MSW '74, BS '72) describes herself at work in the emergency mental health clinic of E. J. Meyer Hospital in Buffalo (later the Erie County Medical Center).
She grew up Marilyn Zinn in a comfortable household in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. When she enrolled at New York University, her father wouldn’t let her to study social work because it would take her into bad neighborhoods.
Then Jerry Shine intervened. Marilyn met him through a mutual friend in 1951 at the Surfcomber Hotel in Miami Beach when she was on an intercession vacation in Florida. He was from Buffalo. They married four months later.
That was the end of college for twenty years. When her youngest of three children was 9, she went back to school—and this time she could study what she wanted. She finished her BS in Social Work at UB in 1972 while the campus heaved with antiwar turmoil and stayed for an MSW.
She had volunteered and spent her second-year field placement in the mental health at Meyer and that’s where she went to work. She loved her patients and she loved her colleagues. And they loved her back. After a medical resident had words with her in the clinic, he eventually had to ask to the director why no one on the staff would speak to him. She went home happy at the end of most days.
She worked with her eyes open. She knew some of her poorer clients—often battered women—had trouble with their applications for welfare, so she presented herself at county hall to apply, to see how the system worked. The system was rude. Despite having a graduate education, she couldn’t follow the application forms. She finally blew her top when she arrived at a desk where she was ordered to “Siddown!”
Asked by a visitor to her department at Meyer-ECMC who was in charge, the director identified himself but pointed to Shine and said she was the boss. She knew what she could do, and she did it forcefully.
After seven years, arthritis ended her career at ECMC. She and Jerry moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where the climate would be easier on her body. But she had no intention of stopping work.
Shine found a job in a hospital-based adolescent residential metal health program that was barely limping along and turned it into a long-term, private-pay residential treatment center that was drawing patients from as far away as Alaska. This time she was both program director and boss.
Then, after five years in Phoenix, it was Jerry’s turn to move, Shine closed this chapter of her career and they relocated to Boca Raton, Fla.
Shine says that one of the great things about the MSW is that it’s so portable. She went to work in the mental health service of nearby hospital.
An MSW may be portable but it doesn’t guarantee what you’ll find at your next stop. She was treated like a novice by a supervisor who’d been out of school for two years. After a couple of months, Shine had had enough. The supervisor insisted that she have an exit interview with the head psychiatrist, a standard procedure. Shine thought that under the circumstances this was ridiculous but she complied.
The hospital was owned by a national for-profit health care corporation that was expanding into the specialty hospital business. Shine’s exit interview turned into a job offer: Would she write a program for a residential treatment center the corporation wanted to start locally?
When she presented the program, the men in the room laughed. “Do you have any idea of how many staff this would take?” They sent her away to write an “adequate” program.
When the facility opened, Shine who despite misgivings had accepted a position as director, couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Treatment was completely subordinated to insurance. If a patient’s coverage ended at noon on a particular day, the patient was out the door at 12:01 without regard to condition. Her Phoenix program had been private pay; her Meyer-ECMC experience had not been so cutthroat.
Jerry Shine told her she looked depressed, which had never been her mien. After a month, she gave a month’s notice; after a week, they were done with her and she was gone. No psychiatrist interview this time.
After 25 years, her outrage hasn’t softened. “Every place I’d worked, patient care was number one,” Shine says. “If you had morals, you couldn’t work in a situation like that.”
That was the end. Shine had loved her work, she’d been effective and she still misses it. She sounds like she could jump back in and do it just as well.
Marilyn Shine readily acknowledges that she had an advantage in her career that was pure good fortune: she didn’t have to depend on her paycheck to live. She was valuable because she was effective; she was effective because she was smart and relentlessly dedicated. But she was always free to walk away.
That freedom was a fact of her life. Her career is what she did with it.