Hi. It has taken me awhile to be able to get to a place of reflection during this pandemic. I spent the entire month of March in a state of grief, disbelief, anger, and quite frankly, at times, despair. I kept trying to “look for the helpers”, even as I was trying to focus on being one of the helpers. But for some reason, it didn’t feel like enough..to focus on the helping, and the good. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen in love with John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” episodes, as much as the next person. I literally find myself smiling during the entire length of his videos. But I knew I needed to get to my own place of understanding and processing, in the midst of all of this. And lucky you, (please laugh at that), I’m ready to share some thoughts. To be certain, I recognize that my thoughts are not your thoughts, or anyone else’s, for that matter. I read a quote on social media last week that said, “We might all be weathering the same storm right now, but we sure as heck aren’t weathering it in the same boat,” and I think nothing could be more truthful, despite our inclination to make it one collective experience. So here you go. My thoughts, not necessarily on the pandemic, but on what the pandemic has either forced me to acknowledge, or has given me the gift of remembering. Either way, I hope that if it resonates with you, you’ll let me know. And that if it doesn’t, you’ll also let me know…kindly.
Back at the beginning of this year (January 3, 2020 to be exact), I started a dialogue with my Pediatric Housecalls team, about words, mantras, and phrases that we might each look to, to define how we wanted to head into this new decade. I invited them each to tell me their words, and I also shared my own three phrases that I hoped would define the next ten years for my own life. I went back this morning and re-read them, I couldn’t help but see some irony in them:
- “Make it matter”
I’ll start with the first one, “connection”, which, when I wrote it a few months ago, was really a bit of a self-challenge. Connecting, as it turns out, isn’t always the easiest thing for people (read: me) to do. Despite the fact that we were never meant to do life alone, the evolution of our world has allowed those of us who tend to fall into the trap of self-sufficiency, to inadvertently disconnect from others, and I dare say, even from our own selves. Let me share a little back story from my younger years, to illustrate how hard-wired I am for not necessarily being self-sufficient, but for desiring self-sufficiency. You’ll see, that at the heart of disconnection, is really an inability to ask for help. I’m not proud of it, but hopefully it will at least make you laugh when you read it.
When I was doing my ER rotation during residency, a patient came in with a very deep laceration to her knee. Being more experienced than I was, my senior ER supervising resident wisely recommended that I close it using something called a “mattress stitch”, given the fact that it was over a joint and under quite a bit of tension. “You know how to do a horizontal mattress stitch, yes?” he asked. “Yeah. Absolutely. Mattress. Got it,” I said, as I promptly walked off toward the laceration cart and wracked my brain to remind myself what a horizontal mattress stitch was. Never one to ask for help, I was sure I could do it on my own. So I did what any self-respecting resident would do, and I quickly drew out what I thought a horizontal mattress stitch was, on the back of a scratch piece of paper, gathered up the irrigation and lacerations trays, and went to work. Twenty minutes later, I was tying off the stitch (notice that I said tying off the “stitch” and not the “last stitch”) and my nervous twenty-something year-old patient lying on her back, looked up at me and said “That wasn’t bad at all! How many stitches did I get?!” I suddenly realized my mistake. A wave of nausea and panic set in, as I looked down and uttered, “Um. Well. See. I just, um, gave…you…um…one long one!” Her face looked confused, but she just shrugged and relaxed her head back down. In my rush to do the procedure on my own, without admitting I needed help, I had placed one long running stitch, instead of tying it off in individual stitches, like the technique was supposed to go. How could I have been so stupid to do a running stitch!?! Over a joint, no less. (Face palm). Once I got over the embarrassment and horror, I was able to find the humor in it. But the lesson was not lost on me. I didn’t ask for help when I should have. And it got me into trouble.
Luckily, I learned from that experience. And also luckily, it wasn’t a life or death mistake. But it was a mistake nonetheless. And even if it has prompted gaggles of laughter from my own kids, (as in, “Oh my gosh, mom. I can’t believe you did the stitches wrong!”), I sometimes still have a hard time laughing about it myself. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of not asking for help. I wonder out loud, how much collateral damage we’re doing, by retreating to our corners, not asking for help, or in some cases, not humbling ourselves to receive help. I am very much a “put my head down and plow forward” kind of person. Back on January 3, 2020, something in me recognized that somehow my self-sufficiency approach wasn’t serving me well. I just had no idea at the time, how much more the word “connection” was going to mean to me. We’re missing it, folks. And I don’t just mean the physical connection that this pandemic has robbed us of. We’ve been missing connection of a deeper kind, since long before this virus came along.
“One conversation. Simple moment. The things that change us. If we notice. When we look up. Sometimes.” —Alicia Keys, “Underdog” (which has been on repeat in my earbuds, since I first heard it a couple of weeks ago)
Moving on to my second word of the decade, “adventure”, I had chosen it based on a certain set of assumptions three months ago. One – that the world would be a safe place in which to set off on adventures. Two – that these adventures would include physical things like travel and exploration. And three – that I would be in complete control of how and when these adventures would take place, complete with file neatly labeled “Italy”, containing our plane tickets, Air BNB reservation confirmations, Trip Advisor research, and typed out day-by-day itinerary, for our trip to Italy at the end of May. Yep, Italy. Of all places. Funny how the only thing that’s certain in life, is how uncertain it actually is.
Which brings me to my third phrase of the decade, “Make it matter.” I looked back and re-read why this particular phrase was important to me. Here is what I had written: “Life is hard sometimes. I’ve figured out that I can’t avoid the hard stuff. None of us can. So if I can’t avoid the hard stuff, I’m going to really try to at least make the hard stuff matter. Usually, the hard stuff comes right before the good stuff.” I had no idea how much I was going to need to cling to this idea, just a few months later.
So, here’s the deal. I’ve believed for a very long time, that stories matter. Specifically, human stories. It’s why I love reading memoirs, why the lyrics of songs move me, and it’s also why I write. So, it’s never been more clear to me, that part of my mission needs to include listening to stories and telling more stories. Medicine, at its best, builds relationships. Relationships are a prerequisite of trust. And trust is a an absolute requirement for us to share our stories with one another. Relationships and personal stories are also the foundation of meaningful dialogue. And without a two-way dialogue, does what we do even really make a difference? I already know that the kind of connections we are making in family’s homes, is unlike any kind of connections I’ve ever experienced before in my professional life. Now I’m ready to share these stories of connection. And I’m ready to make them matter. Whether it’s so that I can learn something from them, grow from them, or simply be inspired by them.
Usually right after the hard stuff, comes the really good stuff. That’s an enticing enough idea for me to carry on, with renewed passion and fuel.