On the Kindness of Strangers

November Gratitude Shorts, Day 3

Today I give thanks for the kindness of strangers.

As I approached the entrance to a building this morning, a young man held the door for me. I walked a good fifteen feet behind him, so I was surprised that he even saw me.  And it was one of those almost awkward moments when he stood there several seconds holding the door—he actually stopped on his way somewhere to be kind to me, a stranger.  I noticed what he was doing and felt happy and warm inside.  Then I panicked just a little—there were 4 shallow steps leading to the door—do I take them two at a time, or shuffle quickly up each one?  What if I trip and fall on the way up, then it’ll be even more awkward, he’ll probably feel obligated to come back out and help me up, maybe regretting that he stopped in the first place…I chose the shuffle option, made it to the door unscathed.  We exchanged smiles, “Thank you,” and “No problem.”  It was just so pleasant!

I love moments like this because they remind me how we are all connected, and how everything we do affects others, no matter how small. I first saw a Travelers Insurance commercial illustrating this in the 1990s. Recently Liberty Mutual (link to the YouTube video) made something similar.  One person shows kindness to a second, a stranger.  This act is witnessed by a third stranger, who later shows kindness to a fourth, which is witnessed by a fifth, etc.  The idea goes one step beyond ‘pay it forward,’ where the person who received the kindness shows kindness to another.  I think we can assume that.  But likely more than one other person witnesses each of these acts, and if they are all inspired to act more kindly toward the next stranger they meet, how brilliant!

Exponential spread of kindness, one small act at a time. Yes.

He for She, We for Us

Ever since my presentation to the American College of Surgeons earlier this month on personal resilience in a medical career, I cannot shake the feeling that we need to do more of this work. Physicians from different fields need to talk more to one another, share experiences, and reconnect.  We also need to include other members of the care team as equals, and let go the hierarchical thinking that has far outlived its usefulness.

I do not suggest that physicians, nurses, therapists, pharmacists and others should play interchangeable roles in the care of patients. Rather, similar to the central tenet of gender equality, the unique contributions of each team member need to be respected equally for their own merits and importance.  As a primary care internist, I must admit that I have seen my professional world through a rather narrow lens until now.  I confess that I live at Stage 3, according to David Logan and colleagues’ definition of Tribal Leadership and culture.  The mantra for this stage of tribal culture, according to Logan et al, is “I’m great, and you’re not.”  Or in my words, “I’m great; you suck.”

“I’m a primary care doctor and I am awesome. I am the true caregiver.  I sit with my patients through their hardest life trials, and I know them better than anyone.  I am on the front line, I deal with everything!  And yet, nobody values me because ‘all’ I do is sit around and think.  My work generates only enough money to keep the lights on (what is up with that, anyway?); it’s the surgeons and interventionalists who bring in the big bucks—they are the darlings of the hospital, even though they don’t really know my patients as people…”  It’s a bizarre mixture of pride and whining, and any person or group can manifest it.

Earlier this fall, Joy Behar of TV’s “The View” made an offhand comment about Miss Colorado, Kelley Johnson, a nurse, wearing ‘a doctor’s stethoscope,’ during her monologue at the Miss America pageant.  We all watched as the media shredded the show and its hosts for apparently degrading nurses.  What distressed me most was the nurses vs. doctors war that ensued on social media.  Nurses started posting how they, not doctors, are who really care for patients and save lives.  Doctors, mostly privately, fumed at the grandiosity and perceived arrogance of these posts.  It all boiled down to, “We’re great, they suck.  We’re more important, look at us, not them.”  The whole situation only served to further fracture an already cracked relationship between doctors and nurses, all because of a few mindless words.

It’s worth considering for a moment, though. Why would nurses get so instantly and violently offended by what was obviously an unscripted, ignorant comment by a daytime talk show host?  It cannot be the first time one of them has said something thoughtlessly.  What makes any of us react in rage to someone’s unintentional words?  It’s usually when the words chafe a raw emotional nerve.  “A doctor’s stethoscope.”   The implicit accusation here is that nurses are not worthy of using doctors’ instruments.   And it triggered such ferocious wrath because so many nurses feel that they are treated this way, that they are seen as inferior, subordinate, unworthy.  Internists feel it as compared to surgeons.  None would likely ever admit to feeling this way, consciously, at least.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all have that secret gremlin deep inside, who continually questions, no matter how outwardly successful or inwardly confident we may be, whether we are truly worthy to be here.  And when someone speaks directly to it, like Joy Behar did, watch out, because that little gremlin will rage, Incredible Hulk-style.

I see so many similarities to the gender debate here. As women, in our conscious minds, we know our worth and our contribution.  We know we have an equal right to our roles in civilization.  And, at this point in our collective human history, we feel the need to defend those roles, to fight for their visibility and validity.  More and more people now recognize that women need men to speak up for gender equality, that it’s not ‘just a women’s issue,’ but rather a human issue, and that all of us will live better, more wholly, when all of us are treated with equal respect and opportunity.  The UN’s He for She initiative embodies this ideal.

It’s no different in medicine. At this point in our collective professional history, physician-nurse and other hierarchies still define many of our relationships and operational structures.  It’s not all bad, and we have made great progress toward interdisciplinary team care.  But the stethoscope firestorm shows that we still have a long way to go.  At the CENTILE conference I attended last week, I hate to admit that I was a little surprised and incredulous to see inspiring and groundbreaking research presented by nurses.  I have always thought of myself as having the utmost respect for nurses—my mom, my hero, is a nurse.  The ICU and inpatient nurses saved me time and again during my intern year, when I had no idea what I was doing.  And I depended on them to watch over my patients when I became an attending.  But I still harbored an insidious bias that nurses are not scholarly, that they do not (or cannot?) participate in the ‘higher’ academic pursuits of medicine.  I stand profoundly humbled, and I am grateful.  From now on I will advocate for nurses to participate in academic medicine’s highest activities, seek their contributions in the literature, and  voice my support out loud for their important roles in our healthcare system.

We need more conferences like this, more forums in which to share openly all of our strengths and accomplishments. We need to Dream Big Together, to stop comparing and competing, and get in the mud together, to cultivate this vast garden of health and well-being for all.  I’ll bring my shovel, you bring your hose, someone else has seeds, another, the soil, and still others, the fertilizer and everything else we will need for the garden to flourish.  We all matter, and we all have a unique role to play.  Nobody is more important than anyone else, and nobody can do it alone.

We need to take turns leading and following. That is how a cooperative tribe works best.  It’s exhausting work, challenging social norms and moving a culture upward.  And we simply have to; it’s the right thing to do.

Unicycling Through the Jungle

Well it was bound to happen sometime–I’m missing a deadline.  Bummer.  It’s not that I don’t care, or that I didn’t see it coming, or that I planned poorly…  Well maybe there was a little poor planning, and also some procrastination.  But I definitely care, and I’ve been thinking about what to write for days!  I just could not pull it together in time, this time.  It feels disappointing, and a little shameful.  I set the expectation for myself and my readers that I would post on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of the month.  My goal was to write material well in advance and schedule it to publish at midnight each day, and that worked the first few months…

And life has gotten in the way.  I’ll spare you the boring details, but suffice it to say that tonight I find myself overwhelmed by the number and complexity of tasks before me.  It’s all stuff I signed up for, that I care deeply about, and that I honestly want to do.  But there are only so many hours in the day and I feel some tough choices coming on.  …Sometimes I think maybe I’ll just push through, like riding a unicycle through a jungle, balancing a Lazy Susan in each hand and one on my head, each spinning precariously with objects of various sizes and shapes.  “I got this,” I think to myself.   But something is bound to fly off and crash to the ground, right?  Maybe it’s something small and replaceable.  That’s okay, I can get another one later.  It’s  the bigger, more valuable things I need to keep an eye on.  How fast are the Susans spinning?  How are they tilted?  Is the porcelain vase too close to the edge?  How will I feel if it flies off and cracks, or shatters?  Will it have been worth pedaling crazily through the rainforest on a one-wheeled circus vehicle?

I think I need to slow down, take a break, set the spinning discs down for a bit.  I can inventory the various objects, and discern the necessary from the recreational, from the extraneous.  I should do this before I lose something precious and irreplaceable.  That I carry them all on Lazy Susans while operating a moving machine is a given–that is just how life feels as a physician, mom, teacher, wife, writer, daughter, speaker, and friend.  And that’s okay.  Balance is a dynamic state; I can keep moving.

Maybe I can also let go my perfectionist tendencies, and allow for some flaws in my designs.  I can pad the fragile items, maybe affix them to the spinning discs more securely.  If they still fall off, they are already protected, at least somewhat.  I can practice posture, upper body strength, and control, so I can stay upright even if I pedal more slowly, more aware of obstacles and able to see a path ahead of me, rather than mindlessly bushwhacking with restaurant furniture.

Tonight I had grand plans for writing eloquently and profoundly on acceptance, grace, tribe, and friendship.  That will have to wait.  I hope the unicycle analogy at least gave you a laugh.  I need to remind myself to lighten up sometimes.  Not everything needs to be profound.  I can forgive myself a late blog post here and there.  I still care, and the writing still matters.  Now, off to find some bubble wrap…