What this physician learned from teaching his kids to ride bikes

Sometimes the minuscule moment is the most relevant; the least anticipated becomes the most profound.  Endless searches for wisdom and insight fade with each passing day, only to be shadowed by an unintentional conversation or event.  Wisdom is profound in the simple, while often hidden, complicated or forgotten in the complex or intentional.  This ironic phenomenon is as old as time, obvious in God’s creations and man’s discoveries.   I’ve reached a point in my life as a father, husband, and physician where the seemingly insignificant, unrehearsed, unadulterated moments in life end up being the most profound and insightful.

You’ve heard the old cliché “It’s as easy as riding a bike.”  I can tell you that as a father of 3 children, that riding a bike is not always simple.  Some children, blessed with coordination and athletic ability tend to catch on quickly, while others take more effort, determination, and literal blood sweat and tears.

This was the case at my house.  As an emergency physician, there is always the underlying paranoia of injury, compounded by visual images of case reports, prior patients, or collegial conversations.  So as any good doc would, I bubble wrapped my children, applied helmets, and identified the largest unoccupied parking lot I could find.

My oldest son Luke was fortunate enough to not be blessed with my two left feet.  I honestly can’t remember when he needed training wheels.  It seems like he was riding the bike from the womb.  My vague recollection, on the other hand, could be a product of the demanding hours or medical school and residency.  Unfortunately, there are many memories that are hidden in the Krebs cycle, pathophysiology, pharmacology, and Tintinalli reviews.

My second son Grant was a different story.  I remember the day he decided that “training wheels were for babies.”  He wanted to ride a bike like all of his friends in our neighborhood.  I was ecstatic and ready for the challenge.  As with most guys, we discussed a game plan prior to our attempted execution.  Grant and I took out the tool box, removed the training wheels, and adjusted his seat for the exciting challenge ahead.  Our short walk to Johnson-McQueen school was filled with anticipation, excitement, and undertones of fear.  I assume his sweat-laden brow had apprehension related to falls, injury, or failure in front of his dad.  I had concerns of how he would react to adversity and the initial failure encountered with new endeavors.  I would like to say that that autumn afternoon was something from the Hallmark Channel where Grant overcame his fears and mastered the two-wheeled monster.

Unfortunately, Grant did inherit my two left feet.  We spent much of the afternoon traversing in tandem the Johnson-McQueen parking lot.  We didn’t master the bike that day.  There were scraped knees, unforeseen potholes, and a very winded father.  His tenacity, drive, and competitive spirit soon turned this into a daily ritual of father and son overcoming gravity and inertia one hour at a time.  Grant wouldn’t let rain or darkness get in the way of his pursuit.  I remember running alongside him in drenched scrubs under the street light as he pleaded for one more try.  “I want to get this right dad.”

Small victories fueled our motivation.  Initially, I was holding the seat and handle bar as Grant seemed to rely solely on my support.  As time passed by and his skill evolved, less and less of my support was needed.  Eventually, I was barely holding the posterior portion of the saddle, running in tandem as Grant traversed the parking lot.  I would feel his overcorrection or momentary loss of balance, correcting his motion with fine adjustments, ensuring his safety and success.  We had reached a critical juncture.  If I let go and Grant fell he might lose faith that dad is my support.  Worse yet, he might get hurt and decide to not get back on the bike.  If I held on forever, he would never progress or learn to ride on his own.

I remember our final lap on that October day.  A fine mist was in the air, and rain was hinting in the horizon.  Dusk was setting, and the fluorescent street lamps created a gentle melody as they woke from slumber.  We were running in tandem, and I knew it was time.  It was time for one of the hardest decisions of my life.  It was time to let go of the saddle and let Grant fight this battle alone.  My heart was beating out of my chest as my hand let go.  I watched as Grant lost his balance on the brink of disaster, only to correct his posture and take control.  He soared for what seemed like forever, down the long asphalt corridor.  Excitement, mixed with healthy caution traversed our veins that dusky evening.  This opened up new possibilities in his life, coupled with new responsibilities and awareness.  Mastering the brakes was a completely different story.

Mastering a bike, harnessing gravity and inertia.  It’s an inevitable event in most children’s life.  Most would say this isn’t profound, but simply a normal progression for children on the path to adulthood.  Who would have thought that it was one of the most profound moments of my life?  I remember the instant the irony hit.  I had an “aha moment” standing there in the cool autumn wind as I watched Grant’s green helmet fade in the distance.  At what point did my holding on hinder his progression?  Was my persistent guidance for Grant more related to my personal fear and apprehension?

In some capacity, we are all leaders, whether it is at work, church, little league or at home.  We have others that depend on us and our direction.  We propagate traditions, skills, and process to the next individual, whether it be how to tie shoes, or intubate an anterior airway.  The “sweet spot” as some might say, is knowing when to let go and let others experience the unparalleled educational branding of personal experience.

In health care, we have become specialist in the area of direction or guidance.  We simulate patient encounters, difficult conversations, surgical procedures, empathy, and catastrophic events like the conductor of an orchestra.  As a physician, my area of focus has been patient and staff centered care.  I passionately believe that this is an aspect of medicine that has a profound correlation with positive outcomes and better care.  Engaged providers and staff that feel appreciated will decrease med errors by creating an environment of better communication.  It will help foster a sense of worth where job becomes a passion, and a patient transforms into more that words can emulate.

What fuels my focus?  How do I make the leap from informed and educated doctor to engaged provider?  It was the moment someone let go of my bike and allowed the branding of experience change my outlook forever.  How do I propagate this in my department, business, or home?  I have to be committed to providing the necessary tools and training for others success, then willing to let go of the saddle when necessary.

Jeffrey McWilliams is an emergency physician who blogs at Advocates Of Excellence.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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