Despite my best hand hygiene efforts, two weeks ago I was blessed with a self-inoculation of the viral crud going around my community emergency department. This resulted in the typical feeling crappy -> sore throat -> runny nose -> cough -> laryngitis progression we’re all used to. The problem with being a physician is that you don’t take time off for being sick. The other problem with working in an emergency department is that you’re forced to talk to people, and during flu season you have to talk to more people than usual. Laryngitis and talking don’t do well together. Eventually the embarrassing coughing fits start. One patient even asked me if I wanted to get into the stretcher with her and rest up. I declined.
Flu season sucks. You have your usual ED patients, and then an onslaught of “cough and fever” chief complaints fill the tracker. I know it’s going to be a long night when I can’t find a parking spot. I know before I even step out of my car that it’s going to be a full waiting room. I prepare to steel myself and don my usual Hulk-like emotional armor, knowing it’s going to be another night of running from room to room and continuously putting out fires.
This week I was surprised with how the shifts went and I learned a something along the way.
Yes, there were long wait times. Yes, I had to run from room to room to keep up with the volume. Yes, I had to stay after my shift for more than an hour to catch up on my charting. But I couldn’t do the Hulk thing. I felt too sick to fight. I was too tired to SMASH.
I started to bend. I’d be in a room interviewing a patient, and lab would call, or a tech would bring in an EKG, or a nurse would tell me that I was needed in another room (typical daily stuff). I’d muster up all of the energy into my cracking voice, apologize, and attend to the item at hand. Then I’d return, smile and continue my interview. I was being bent, stretched, and pulled, but I couldn’t fight. I could just roll with it.
At the end of the shift I discovered something important about myself. I was able to show compassion for myself in my time of illness. I revealed my vulnerability to others and received their compassion in return. I bent to the pressure but did not break. When I finished the shift I was more at peace than after any other busy shift before, even when I was well.
It often feels good to smash. But that feeling is temporary. You soon find yourself alone and confused. Bend, bend like Elastigirl. Bend like the willow tree.