Remember to hold on: Navigating the waters of medicine

In the world of medicine, we often feel like we’re swimming upstream without a paddle. Like we’re the only ones having problems out there. With no one to lend a hand. No wonder health care providers suffer from major burnout.

You would think when one is away on a great vacation, it’d be easy to rein in that feeling, to appreciate what truly matters.

Not always. Until it is presented to you front and center.

I know this from experience.

There I was on a week-long whitewater rafting trip — my husband’s birthday present — on the “River of No Return” in Idaho.

Not exactly a dream vacation for this city girl. But beautiful scenery and pleasant company quickly won me over.

The trip was going well and there were no surprises. Until the last day. That’s when it all changed.

Seven rafts were scheduled to go down the river. That day, my husband and I decided to ride the big, slow raft that carried extra gear. It was manned by Luke, the head dude.

Luke was the real deal: a true outdoorsman who had rafted all his life. In fact, he came from a family of whitewater rafters.

By week’s end, we had become accustomed to having no contact to the outside world. The area was so remote that one truly had to raft in, or be on an all-terrain vehicle, to gain access.

That’s why I was so surprised to see an older man on an ATV riding alongside the shoreline, following our raft. And I was even more surprised when Luke gingerly maneuvered over to the riverbank’s edge and picked up the fellow, who left his ATV behind.

My husband and I just looked at each other quizzically. We saw Luke and the stranger exchange a few words.

We proceeded down one of the trickiest sections of rapids we had encountered all week. I was grateful to have Luke at the helm, and forgot all about the stranger. I noticed the stranger went to bat to help Luke immediately, and we made it through the rough waters unscathed.

Shortly afterward, Luke again steered the raft over to the side of the riverbank. The stranger got out of the raft and we were soon back on our way down the river.

Luke didn’t offer up any explanation. Like most of the guides on that trip, he was a man of few words. When he spoke, he typically said things like: Hold on tight now; or, dinner’s ready; or, we’ll leave at 6 a.m. tomorrow, so get some rest.

I mentioned the odd encounter to one of the female guides that evening over dinner. She set me straight. Turns out, the stranger was Luke’s dad. And the route that day was where Luke’s grandfather had recently died.

He lost his life trying to save a young passenger on another raft.

Luke’s dad knew this would be a tough day for him. This was the first time Luke had gone through those rapids since his grandfather died. So Luke’s dad showed up to give him moral and physical support to safely make it past the rockiness.

My love and respect for Luke and his dad swelled after hearing that story. I had had no idea of his loss.

And it taught me a lesson that we folks in medicine can learn from the whitewater rafting crew. When things get rocky, and we know they will, we need to ride alongside each other.

To be there to help out, or to sit quietly and weather the storm.

It doesn’t matter if that storm is a scary section of rapids on a river or a deep patch of fear in our hearts.

Navigating the waters of medicine can be just as treacherous as whitewater rapids, my friends. Let’s remember to hold on.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and is the author of Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD

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