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4 Things We Can Learn from an ER Doctor When Dealing with Tragedy

Because everything can change in the blink of an eye

Life is Fragile.  It’s not like it is on TV, watching someone die. Grey’s Anatomy makes it all seem so cool and dramatic. Music playing in the background, pained facial expressions on good-looking actors. But when a patient really dies, it isn’t such great drama. It bites away a piece of my soul. Like a service charge for the job.

And that’s the reality of life and death.  That’s the reality of working as an emergency physician.

We were all shocked by tragedy that transpired on Sunday.  Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and 7 other souls all perished in a helicopter crash.  We are stunned and saddened because things like this aren’t supposed to happen.  A famous, hall of fame worthy basketball player isn’t supposed to die with his eldest daughter sitting next to his side. 

They never saw it coming. 

Everything can change so suddenly, literally in a heartbeat. It applies to everyone. No one is immune. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what you plan to do in the future.  And it’s not just for the individuals on the helicopter, but everyone in their spectrum.  Their families, friends, associates.  So many people.  The ripple effect is less like a ripple and more like a tsunami. 

I want answers.  Why does this stuff have to happen?

I don’t mean it simply, like Why is it painful when a loved one dies? 

I mean the why on a more philosophical level.  And I don’t even know totally what that means.  It’s hard to even form the question.

My wife lost her father to leukemia. He was young and previously healthy. It’s clear this doesn’t make any sense to her. The same way it doesn’t make sense that I had to do CPR on a friend of mine. It just is.

There is a lot of badness out there. Not just trauma, but cancer. ISIS, famine, genocide, suicide. The list goes on and on. To keep from being completely overwhelmed, I have to stop myself when things start to spiral out of control. I just stop. Not with the answer, but with an observation.

I have to apologize. This may not be the article that you were looking for. Because I don’t have the answer.

But I will share with you my observations personally and from the ER when dealing with tragedy:

  • Breathe 

Whenever something bad happens, take a breath.  In and out.  Breathe in, breathe out.  I think a lot about life and how it relates to time.  Have you seen those old school analogue clocks, the kind that hang in a gymnasium or old office building?  The minute hand makes erratic yet predictable movements.  It moves big forward and then small back.  Big forward, small back.  It is a bit like life as a whole. 

  • Don’t focus on “the why.”  Focus on “your why.”

Change your question.  Switch from asking “Why do bad things happen?” to “What is my why?”

My wife is amazing. And I really love my kids.  I love big complicated things like black holes and time. But I also love simple things. Like a sunrise. Like a smile. The moon is phenomenal. And it comes out all the time. Sometimes it even gets eclipsed. Phenomenal.

All of these feelings of connection and emotion, they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They didn’t come for free.

The cost was allowing myself the risk. The risk is what sets the stage, and without it I have nothing. My risk is losing someone I love. Suffering.  Feeling emptiness.  The risk is living life, and that life is going to fill the whole gamut of experience—both good and bad.  You can’t get one without the other.

  • Building character sucks, especially when you’re building character.

The ER is brutally honest.  It has taught me so much of what I hold most dear.

I was sitting at a little boy’s grave last week.  His name was Samuel.  He’s a boy I had lost in the ER.  I don’t come here all that often.  I don’t think I have PTSD.  But sometimes I feel the need to just come here and sit. 

I sat down next to the grave and, well, just sat, nothing else. I closed my own eyes and took in the moment.  More appropriately, I was in the moment.

I found peace.

I have lost love, but only through that experience could I find my true love. I have seen kids die, and because of circling that black hole, I know how to love my own children.

Terrible moments often turn out to be the sculptors of our most profound and real self. 

  • Loosen your grip

I laid by Samuel’s grave for about thirty minutes. Caught in the moment, the dream, the reality. Then a car pulled up to another grave nearby. I turned my head and looked at all the little toys spread out over the groomed dirt. I breathed.  Life moved on and left the little boy behind. But then again it didn’t. The clock moved big forward, small back. He was right here, telling me to loosen my grip.

The best hitters in baseball don’t strangle the bat to death.  They let the moment flow.   I need to loosen up my grip.  I need to relax. 

These words aren’t here to make the families of those who were lost feel any better, because I don’t think any words can do that.  The words are more selfish.  They will help me understand that both good and bad things are going to happen.  There isn’t any way to avoid it – even if I were richer, stronger, more famous or more loved.  These words are for me.  For love.  For hope.  I’m going to go home, hug my kids and kiss my wife like I might not ever see them again because life is fragile. 

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