The emergency room is an interesting place to work. It’s controlled chaos. Walk through the hallways, and you’ll hear people screaming, see others crying, and others wincing in pain.
Over time, you get a unique perspective on the human condition. In my years of training and practice, I’ve seen so much. People experiencing their worst days. Others receiving news that will change everything. Some lives ending. Others returning from the brink.
Certainly, my views have broadened, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
So, with that, here are a few things I’ve learned.
1. Life is short. The big one. I’m sure we’ve all contemplated this before, but when you work in the ER, you’re reminded of this constantly. Everything can be going along smoothly when all of a sudden that passing car comes and it’s game over. Or you wake up one morning, and that aneursym ruptures, or that MI suddenly drops you down. I’ve seen that far too often.
We never know when our last day will come, and most of us aren’t planned for it. But when I’m constantly reminded of it, it does impact the way I think about my decisions in life. Perhaps I’ll take that trip I’ve always wanted to take. Or start writing that blog! When I think about my loved ones and realize that I never know when they could be taken away from me, it puts those petty disagreements into perspective.
2. Don’t put things off. Things can be going along smoothly for us when all of a sudden, an injury or illness comes along and changes everything.
Sometimes I think I should buckle down now and pick up those extra shifts. Work hard and save and sacrifice for a better tomorrow. This is certainly the culture that I was brought up with. But I’m constantly reminded that the future is never guaranteed.
I’ll never forget the case of a young resident in our hospital that was diagnosed with metastatic cancer just weeks before the end of his grueling five-year surgical residency. And he’d been feeling well up until a week or two before he arrived in our ED.
So I’m reminded to take some time for the things I want to accomplish in life, and to do it now!
3. Kindness matters. Receiving an act of kindness is amazing. When you’re working late at night, dealing with difficult people when you’d rather be at home, or in bed, someone giving you a genuine “thank you” can truly make the difference in your shift. Think about how good it feels to be appreciated for what you do.
And there’s no cost to being kind. Having taken care of thousands of people, it’s certainly those who give you a smile and appreciate your work make your day more pleasant and easier. And I think those patients probably get improved care in the end because their interaction with the medical staff is just so much nicer.
Kindness is reciprocal. Being kind to others too will simply improve your interaction with them. Knowing the little boost that it gives me in my day, I try to extend that same kindness to others. You never know how a simple act of kindness to the people around you can give them a little boost as well.
4. People just want to be heard and understood. In the ER, I experience and deal with people with all sorts of physical and emotional states. People yell at me constantly for refusing to do an unnecessary test, or because their wait time was “too long.” It’s frustrating at times, and it used to really anger me and ruin my shifts. I used to think something like, “How could someone be such a jerk? Can’t they see how busy the ER is?”
Now, this is still a work in progress, but I’ve learned to be better at taking the perspective of those people into account. Have you ever experienced what it’s like to be a patient? It’s an extremely vulnerable position to be in. You have to remember that what people are really saying is. “I’m scared something is wrong with me?” or “I don’t feel well and need help.” When I remember how vulnerable a patient, it put things into perspective. Suddenly, they bother me much less.
Putting myself in another’s shoes helps me understand where those feelings are coming from. It diffuses anger, keeps me from taking things personally, and helps me to try and be more empathetic. Remind yourself once in a while.
5. It could always be worse. No matter how bad you think you have it, there is someone out there who has it worse off than you. For some people, life just isn’t fair, and people get struck down with illness and injury for no good reason at all.
A lot of the things I find stressful day-to-day are trivial compared to the challenges of someone fighting for their life. You and I are actually a lot luckier than we know. Don’t take it for granted.
It’s important to have that perspective. What we often think matters to us now, in the end, won’t be important at all.
Navpreet Sahsi is an emergency physician who blogs at Physician, Heal Thyself.
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