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Life Stories

In All Endeavors

Fighting for the life of a hospital, I lay the foundation for my own unshakable happiness.

Unbeatable—Gene Marie O’Connell in Corte Madera, Calif., September 2022. Photo by Jin. H.

by Gene Marie O’Connell
Corte Madera, Calif.

Recently, a couple friends were reminiscing at the Florida Nature and Culture Center. Katie, whom I met in 1977 at our first nursing job in San Francisco, said of me back then: “I just didn’t get it, you know? I mean, Gene had two little kids she was raising on her own. The other nurses would tease about her too-big, secondhand uniform (she couldn’t afford a new one), and she’d just look at them and smile. That’s what I didn’t get, and that’s what intrigued me—her smile.”

I’d encountered Nam-myoho-renge-kyo three years prior, deeply depressed in the waiting room of San Francisco General Hospital. My son’s fever had brought us in. Having no car, I walked, carting him and his sister, ages 2 and 5, in a rickety old carriage, an obstinate thing that winded me wherever we went, for welfare checks or hospital checkups. Beside me, a young woman read a newspaper called the World Tribune that bore the word happiness in its heading. My son was fussing as I rocked him in the carriage, which joined in, squeaking. I’d left a bad marriage earlier that year and had just failed my nursing school entrance exams. 


I pointed to the paper. “Excuse me, what’s this?”

Since childhood, I’d suspected there was something more to life than life was letting on, and that I’d find it one day. Walking up the steps to my first SGI meeting, hearing the vibrant, galloping, hope-filled chanting within, I knew that day had come. I found a practice and a community that I would stick with for the rest of my life. 

“Challenge everything with the Gohonzon,” the women urged me. “There’s nothing you can’t do.” 

I summoned the courage to do just that. Three years later, I was a registered nurse, with a car and a job at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). True, I was still on my own with the kids; true, the hours were long and hard, the patients difficult. True, the younger nurses laughed at my secondhand uniform. But I’d smile, bowing inwardly to their Buddha nature. I will reveal my full potential, and so can you! So just watch me! 

My leaders had communicated to me my potential so clearly, with such conviction, that it had upended the way I saw myself. I had a great mission to relieve suffering and impart joy. For the first time in my life, I’d begun to see my own worth. Soon, others began to see it, too. Doors were opened, and one after the other, I walked through them.

In 1984, I was asked to train a group of nurses at San Francisco General, the same place I’d encountered Buddhism. The mission of this public hospital—to help the underserved and marginalized—called to me deeply. When I was asked to stay, it felt right. I said yes. 

For the next 25 years, I worked there, taking on every challenge and treating everyone with the same sincere respect, be they patients, nurses, shop stewards or brain surgeons. One person after another recommended me to greater responsibility.

In 1997, after 13 years, I became CEO, the first woman and nurse to do so. I’d continue in that role for a record-breaking 12 years, saving the hospital from closure in my final year. The building was old, no longer up to code with earthquake safety standards, and we needed money to save what San Franciscans had begun to refer to as “the heart of the city.” I fought until the very last minute, as I’d learned in the SGI, and in the end, we won the largest public bond ever put on the California ballot. The following year, I retired. 

Of course, there’s no retirement in faith. I’d been asked to join the board of directors of SGI-USA in 2004, and continued on in that role. Later, in 2014, I was invited to lecture at the Soka University Faculty School of Nursing in Hachioji, Tokyo. As an alumnus of UCSF and a disciple of Ikeda Sensei, I helped create an exchange program between the two institutions, a program that continues to thrive. 

Gene and her husband, Joel, September 2022.

In 2017, I was invited onto Soka University of America’s board of directors; the university was ramping up its new Life Sciences program and believed I could offer insights. 

Even after I was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, I did not stop meeting with the Soka University students visiting from Japan. Despite my early-morning radiation treatments, those same mornings I was overjoyed to meet with, advise and encourage these youth, to run around town with them, helping them settle in. 

This battle, as with every preceding battle, laid the foundation for the most grueling one yet, when later that same year I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. The treatments almost made me nostalgic for radiation. I spent my days and nights in bed, fairly paralyzed with pain. Some days, the pain was such that I thought, as a plain fact: I’m on death’s door. 

In the midst of this, I received a memo from Sensei.

It was a passage from The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin: “The mighty sword of the Lotus Sutra must be wielded by one courageous in faith” (“Reply to Kyo’o,” vol. 1,
p. 412). At the bottom were Sensei’s words: “Continue in all your endeavors.” My mentor was asking me to fight. Flat on my back, paralyzed with pain, I felt fresh resolve course through me. As soon as my condition stabilized, in 2021, I swung back into action. 

This month, I spoke again, as I have each year since 2014, to the nursing students of Soka University. My central message remains unchanged. The only difference is, I say it now with greater conviction than ever: that they are all leaders of the future; that their lives have no limits; that they should smile, not because their lives are easy, but as a cause to win in all their endeavors.

What advice would you give the youth?

Gene Marie O’Connell: When a door opens, walk through it, even if you are shaking inside. You’ll likely feel unprepared. That’s only natural. Chant to summon the courage to walk through. Then you’ll say, “Gee, I had the courage to do that once, maybe I can do it again.” On the other side of every door, you’ll find greater and greater self confidence.

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