You Can’t Pee!


NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

When my son was little we lived in an apartment where the kitchen was a separate room, with only a small window through which I could see what he was doing in the living room while I cooked.  Once when he was about five months old, I looked out and he was lying on the mat in the middle of the floor, playing happily with the toys dangling from arches overhead.  I swear I only turned around for a minute, and when I looked back he was gone.  Empty mat, toys still dangling, no kid, no sounds.  I can’t remember what I was doing, but it felt like a slow motion eternity getting out of that damn kitchen to find him.  Something heavy must have fallen on him or he was otherwise suffocating or dying, for sure.  …He had just learned to roll over, and he had rolled and rolled and rolled himself into the space under the air conditioning unit near the window.  He was turning over a dried jasmine leaf he’d found on the floor.  Not long after that I decided I had to buy food preparation gloves.  Just in case my kid needed me anytime I was handling raw meat, this would save me the infinitude of time it would take to wash my hands—I could just pull the gloves off and bolt!  Because you know, 30 seconds could mean life or death for a toddler in his own living room.

Please laugh—I did today when I told the story to a friend.  It came up as we explored the phenomenon of moms putting everything for their kids before themselves.  We compared notes on how long we had ever held our urine.  What mom has not done this?  You can’t pee!  Because you never know which minute you’re not with your children will be the one during which your neglect will kill them.  Thankfully children grow and become more independent, and we can free our bladders again eventually.

It’s not just moms, though.  One of my teachers in the hospital gave herself a urinary tract infection as a resident.  She had so much to do every day, so many patients who needed her that she felt guilty taking time to pee.  I did the same thing in clinic for many years.  I could not justify making patients wait another minute when I was already 15 (usually more) minutes late seeing them. I don’t do this anymore.  In a fit of efficiency last week, I stepped into the restroom after I set my lunch to microwave for 2:00.  It literally takes only a minute to pee.  I don’t usually run late these days, but even if do, now take care of my needs first.  It’s better for me, and better for my patients, whose doctor is not distracted by preventable physical discomfort and dying to end the interview or exam to get some relief.

Our culture still expects moms, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many others to sacrifice selflessly in service of our charges.  UTIs are the least important consequence.  Over 50% of physicians in the US report at least one symptom of burnout, and 400 doctors kill themselves annually.  That is the equivalent of my entire medical school, dead, every year.  It’s not all because of the job, but the obligatory selfless-giver mentality in medicine definitely contributes.

So whatever helping profession you are in, please take time to take care of yourself.  We need you whole and healthy to take care of the rest of us and our children.

Go pee.  I will wait.

#AtoZChallenge: On Belay!

Lately I feel like I berate my kids. Could you please rinse your spoon?  How many times do I need to tell you to pick up your clothes?  Please, thank you, please, thank you, please?  Maybe I’m tired, stressed, sleep deprived; maybe I’m just irritable.  I don’t like it.  I’d rather guide them with more patience and love.  Like Toni Morrison said, “You think your affection and deep love is on display, because you’re caring for them.  It’s not.”  She asks, “Does you face light up” when you see your children?  In other words, can they see and feel your love for them when they see your face?

I don’t want to berate. I want to belay!

I first learned this word at a ropes course, maybe in high school. It’s a climbing term many of you will know.’s mountain climbing definition of belay is as follows:

  1. To secure (a person) by attaching to one end of a rope.
  2. To secure (a rope) by attaching to a person or to an object offering stable support.

I remember hearing, “On belay!” as part of the climbing sequence. A quick Google search of the phrase yields this explanation:  “Your belayer…lets you know that he is on belay and that it is safe for you to climb, saying, ‘On belay.’”  The voice commands before climbing commences are:

Belayer: “On Belay.”

Climber: “Ready to Climb.”

Belayer: “Climb” or “Climb on.”

Climber: “Climbing.”

I want to be the belayer, the anchor—of character, behavior, confidence, and love—from which my children can cast themselves. They need to know that I am here to secure them, the stable place from which they can strive for new heights.  In order to do this, they need to know that I believe in them, that I see their essential worthiness.  I could say something more like, “Hey, I know you’re a good kid and you want to help out.  It really helps keep our home clean if you pick up your clothes from the floor.”  It’s much more mindful.

Recently the actor Tom Hiddleston appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, to promote his new movie, “I Saw the Light.”  Hiddleston, a Brit, plays Hank Williams, the iconic American folk singer.  I already love both Hiddleston and Colbert, so I could not wait to watch the video of them singing a duet on the show.  It turns out that Hiddleston had never sung before this role, but did all the singing himself in the film.  Colbert invites him to sing, live and impromptu, on the show, and what follows is a perfect study in belaying.  Allow me to dissect and interpret:

2:18   Stephen first invites Tom to sing.  Tom expresses apprehension.  The crowd goes wild and he looks conflicted, as if he mostly does not want to sing.  He tries to quiet the crowd but they are rowdy.

2:33   Stephen lightens the mood by playing spoons on the desk.  He makes it safe for Tom to consider the invitation, buys him some time to decide.

2:36   Tom says if we want to see him sing, we should see the film.  He looks almost deflated, like he feels at once dutiful to have plugged his movie, and disappointed that he might have passed up a chance to perform.

2:41     Stephen chuckles playfully and says, “Okay, uh, we’ll see.”  He’s thinking of another way to coax Tom out a little.

2:45     Stephen promptly finds a way to relate to Tom—says he grew up on Hank Williams.  He appeals to Tom’s admiration for the singer, makes a connection.  He suggests they sing “I Saw the Light,” the title track from the movie.  Tom still looks disinclined.

2:56   Stephen gets a riff from the band, and sings the first line of the song.  It’s pitch perfect, and completely authentic.  He puts himself out there first, an honest and vulnerable invitation for Tom to join in.  On belay!

3:03   Tom has been holding his breath, and lets it out in a reluctant puff, shaking his head.  You can still see his conflict, and you’re rooting for him.  Jump in, Stephen will hold you up!

3:10-5   Tom sings the second line with Stephen, slowly, and in perfect harmony.  He’s still sitting back, a little stiff, hands clasped in his lap, cautiously accepting the invitation.  Ready to climb!photo 1.PNG

3:26   Tom starts to lean forward toward Stephen, engaging more.

3:29   The band starts playing in earnest and the audience immediately starts clapping enthusiastically.  At this point you just want to get up and dance, the energy palpably rising.  Climb on!

3:34   Tom breaks a smile while singing—a big, joyous smile.  photo 2+.PNG

3:37   His shoulders relax, he gets animated.  He leans in further, starts to really have fun.  Climbing!

3:45   Tom turns to the audience to encourage them in return, while Stephen interjects, “Everybody!”  Tom starts to clap, and sings to the audience.

3:55   Tom’s really enjoying himself, he’s into it.  If you’re not moving your body by now, there might be something wrong with you.

4:06   The finale starts.  Tom leans into Stephen again, following timing cues as the chorus slows.

4:15   He looks to Stephen, grateful and maybe a little relieved, and also very glad that he took this chance to sing and have fun.  photo 3.PNG

4:19  After shaking hands, Tom lightly hits the desk with his fist.  I bet he’s thinking, “Nailed it.”  photo 4.PNG


The interview starts with the two men talking about Hank Williams’ troubled life, his ‘formidable demons,’ as Hiddleston puts it. He expresses compassion for this, as I have seen him do in previous interviews about other characters he has portrayed.  He describes how Williams rose to stardom quickly, but ‘with no real support, no one to anchor him.’  Funny how he uses that word, anchor—like belayer.

We all need our anchors, our belayers. They are the people in our lives to whom we secure ourselves, and who look out for us.  Thanks to them, we can climb on, toward new experiences.  From their stable posts, we can stretch out and grow.  And when one of us grows, we can all grow.  Or in the case of this video, we all at least have a great time!

We can belay one another in seemingly the smallest ways…or maybe they’re not so small after all.  I bet Tom will remember this duet his whole life.