Here we find ourselves, in these uncertain times. Or should I say unprecedented times? Or perhaps unforeseeable would do the trick? As the article last week focused on, we are in stormy seas, our minds the casualty of an unrelenting stream of daily information. Perhaps you feel as though you’re clinging to a life raft amidst uncharted waters at this point. Completely understandable, but do you mind if I offer a few words that I hope can help in keeping your head above water?
Many of you will know that I am currently in Alberta completing my medical residency program. One thing I’ve discovered is that learning the art and science of medical practice has a unique and powerful way of sending one into what is academically called stage 4 confusion (indeed, everything in medicine must be staged appropriately and categorized). Information and data can be extraordinarily overwhelming, and one can find themselves staring into the distance, unsure of what is happening. The antidote to overwhelming confusion is often a return to foundational principles. For instance, in the emergency department it is imperative to trust that even when someone comes in with a myriad of injuries, the simplest of principles still apply. Don’t get distracted by the dislocated shoulder (at first). Stick with the ABCs. First, assess the Airway. Then Breathing. Next is the Circulation. Slowly, but surely, the foundational principles transform an extraordinarily chaotic situation into a manageable one.
A while ago (pre COVID-19) I was working at an exceptionally large hospital in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), a particularly daunting experience for a medical trainee. This is where the sickest patients are treated. There are wires, tubes, and IV bags around every corner. One night, my beeper went off to come attend to a patient that had been transferred to the ICU. She was unwell, but on the spectrum of “ICU unwellness” she seemed closer to the “likely-to-survive-until-morning” category than what you can imagine the alternative category is. The patient was tucked in for the night. It was back to the call room for me, for some much-needed rest…or so I thought. The patient quickly began doing very poorly. All semblance of comfort evaporated within a couple of hours as things worsened. Despite continuously watching the squiggly lines on the heart monitor, observing the rhythmic pump of the ventilator and doing my best along with the team to rectify a dire situation, this physiologic nightmare did not end.
The patient died the next day. The experience that night is etched into my mind. It was the worst feeling I have had in my medical career. This was not the first time I had seen death, but this was different than anything else I had experienced. I reflected on the complete and utter feelings of helplessness that accompanied that night. The weight was palpable and heavy. Team members the next day would say, “everything was done correctly,” or “there was nothing that could be done.” It only partially mattered. The distress within my mind had taken hold and was not allowing room for reason or comfort. I walked home, shedding some tears in the process. I decided to pick up my Bible and subsequently encountered the words below:
“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.
Read and reflect on those words again. What does this mean to you during this time? Are you feeling the winds? Are the waves crashing towards you? Do you feel alone in the boat?
So often we live completely oblivious and distracted to that which defines our very being as a follower of Christ. After all, nothing is wrong. Until it is. Peter forgot who was with him on the stormy waters and was distracted looking down at the crashing waves. Many times, I am Peter. Medicine has a way of making this part of my nature painfully apparent. I have no doubt you can relate too. Unfortunately, we all suffer from our human nature. Sometimes, being a human means lack of perspective. Without a doubt, being a human means failing to rely on our ABCs occasionally. Yes, the concept of returning to our ABCs can apply to so much more than managing a medical situation. It is also about how we deal with the chaos in our mind when the waves are seemingly crashing on top of us and we’re struggling to realize that we’re not alone. What if we lived our lives with the unwavering conviction that Jesus himself is in the boat with us? It’s not complicated. In fact, it’s so beautifully simple. Perhaps, as COVID lingers on, God is calling us to return to the fundamental truth that He is right beside us amidst the chaos.
These days, most of my patients are not suffering of physical symptoms from a novel coronavirus that has infiltrated their body; however, that is not to say that these patients aren’t experiencing a “COVID-19 storm.” I know many of you can probably identify with this. The destruction of COVID-19 is not limited to the physical effects of the virus. There is the unseen chaos. The chaos is called uncertainty. The chaos is also called financial insecurity and isolation and loneliness. Maybe it’s called lack of trust. This unseen chaos is for many people stripping away their sense of security. Will I get my job back? Can I afford to make all of my upcoming payments? What if anxiety and depression take over me? Beyond the fear of lung disease and ventilators, these are the questions that are haunting many of my patients.
As I work through my training during this pandemic, there are a lot of things I don’t know. In fact, there are a lot of things many people don’t know. A great deal of tremendously intelligent people diverge in their thinking on solutions to beat COVID-19. There is an intellectual and thoughtful process that must be undertaken to balance competing interests as our society adjusts to what this pandemic brings our way. But there is only so much that science can do to help us all individually and collectively get through this because while viruses are real, so is the chaos in our mind. And for everything that medicine brings to the table, our faith in Jesus goes far beyond what is offered by well-designed studies, vaccines and therapies. I think back to the lessons learned during my days in the ICU and during my medical training in general. Each of you have your own way of contextualizing what this pandemic has meant to you and the chaos within. We all have one thing in common though, and it’s found in simple words like these.
Take heart. I’m already in the boat with you.
Calmer waters are ahead.