The pediatric emergency department’s fluorescent light cast its glow on our heads, drifting and drooping, at 3 a.m.
Torn between taking a chance on rest and anticipating the next fever, headache, abdominal pain, wheezing or rash that came through the doors, we sat suspended.
The nurses tried to stay awake with a parade of old cat videos and Kardashian memes, their Facebook feeds stale – no one really posts much at that hour.
I pushed myself out of my scratchy rolling chair and shuffled toward the coffee machine, seeking its sour black watered-down high. It grumbled, filling the squishy styrofoam cup only three-quarters. I held it close to my nose — the smell was so much better than the taste — and headed toward the break room.
The respiratory therapist sat on the vinyl couch. It was the first time we’d worked together. After brief introductions earlier in the shift, we busied ourselves with nebs and nasal cannulas for our wheezers and hypoxics, now finally able to chat in the early morning lull.
The usual get-to-know-you questions immediately revealed differences. She was a veteran and a proud gun owner, I a child of pacifist hippies. When painted with a wide brush, our political views and upbringing couldn’t have been more different. In many spaces of life, our conversation would have stopped.
But perhaps the fatigue of the hour softened us; as we delved beyond the superficial, we began to find common ground. We shared a passion for women’s rights, her views shaped by witnessing the treatment of women during her deployment in the Middle East. We talked frankly about guns and their regulations, helping me realize the practical issues affecting my assumptions. We shared a fierce pride and love for our children. We found each of us was less to the right or left than we’d supposed.
Patients soon arrived, and we got back to work. But I kept thinking about our conversation. It had been years — probably since late night hallway chats in college — that I’d talked so directly and productively with someone so different from me. And It turned out our differences weren’t so very different.
It seems lately, in both our actual and virtual communities, we are ever more divided and siloed, clustering more with our various tribes. But I realized it’s our country’s hospitals and clinics where our nation’s diversity shows. My decade working in health care has provided friendships with those from walks of life entirely opposite to mine. As a New York-bred white liberal woman, I’ve scrubbed in with surgeons who came here from Mexico as undocumented children, bagged patients with Alabama-raised evangelical Christian respiratory therapists, learned to suture from a doctor whose parents survived the Holocaust, consulted with Pakistani Muslim physical therapists, shared a laugh with devout Irish Catholic environmental service workers, done urine caths with nurses who also run cattle ranches and helped calm scared patients with child life specialists who came here after the Haitian earthquake.
All corners of the world meet in the hospital. All kinds of people commit their lives to helping the sick. We are there to alleviate suffering and save lives. With these shared goals, other differences suddenly seem petty. We may differ in our belief systems, our life experiences, our opinions on policy. But when I am assessing a critical patient, the respiratory therapist is getting the endotracheal tube, the nurses are swiftly placing IVs, the radiology tech is wheeling in the portable X-ray machine, the clerk calling the social worker to help the family standing agape nearby, no one cares who we voted for or who we worship. We are one team there to save a life.
So maybe the place to start resuscitating our community and healing our nation’s divisions is within health care, where our nation’s great diversity comes together. Where unity around common goals of curing cancer, fixing fractures, treating addiction, preventing heart disease and lifting people out of the shadow of suicide brings out our common humanity, helping us realize we are often more the same than we are different.
I am thankful for the bad coffee, overnight lull, and conversation that brought me this reminder: That true connection is there when we reach beyond Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds to find that which we share.
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