Patient patient

As an English teacher, I loved leading students through the rules and nuances of grammar.  I still love words and those times when a single word needs context to create meaning.

Take the word “patient”. It could mean the noun “patient”, someone who is ill or injured and needs or is receiving medical care. Or it could mean the adjective “patient”, suggesting that someone is or needs to be prepared that something might take some time, even more time than one might want. Here’s my recent story of being a patient patient!

Five weeks ago, on a Tuesday morning around 8 AM, my foot slipped while trying to get into a very high truck without helpful runner boards. The force and angle of the three foot drop was enough to seriously twist my ankle. I heard an internal ‘pop’ and felt intense pain. Given that I was away from home and had to fly about 6 hours the following day, I decided to head to Emergency to be checked out. I chose to become a patient.

And here are some of the things I learned in the Emergency Department that morning:

Early is always better than late.

If you have to go to Emergency and you have any choice, going early on a weekday morning is better than waiting to go later in the day. There were four of us in the waiting room at 9 AM but by 10 AM, the waiting room was getting crowded.

Everyone who shows up in an Emergency waiting room is worried.

They're worried about the reason that made them come in the first place, about not knowing how long they will have to wait, about being fearful about potential outcomes. That morning, my waiting companions included a young father with an inconsolable crying toddler; a mother with her school-aged son, having been told by a walk-in clinic to go to Emergency right away without fully knowing why; a middle-aged woman who, post back surgery, was experiencing significant pain and didn’t know what else to do but come to Emergency because her doctor was away. They were all worried.

Being a patient patient is difficult when it appears that no one is being called and no one is explaining why nothing is happening.

There are usually valid reasons for delays. For example, as I was leaving the x-ray area, my porter came to an abrupt halt—before our eyes, we witnessed a “Code White”, a call for security back-up; a patient in a cubicle had started to attack the person looking after him. The response was impressive—quick and effective, resulting in a calmed patient. But people in the waiting room didn’t see the refocused energy and extra personnel required when that patient became violent. If only someone could touch base with people waiting to let them know what is going on behind the doors they can’t see through.

I eventually learned that I had broken my ankle, fortunately not badly enough to need surgery.  My leg and foot was placed in a walking-boot type of cast and sent on my way, back to the meeting I had been trying to get to at eight o’clock that morning in the first place.

Now I am home being a patient patient as my ankle bone heals. It’s quite a change for me to not be able to drive, to not be able to go for long walks when the sun comes out, to not fill up the bird feeders myself, to not being able to just go to the grocery store when I think I need more grapefruits. Someone asked me what I thought the ‘message’ was for me in this…and I replied, “I’m more interested in thinking about the ‘opportunities’!” And there have been many.

I’ve slowed down. I happily watch robins find worms on my lawn. I’ve learned to ask for help and have enjoyed the car rides and conversations with friends who have willingly ferried me from A to B and back again. I had time to think about what two poems I would take to my book club for a poetry night and was delighted to discover that the two I chose (Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson and the lyrics to The Impossible Dream from the play The Man of La Mancha) were two of twenty poems I selected for a poetry project, done back in 1970, and kept these many years.

I have also read more books than I’ve read in quite a while. One of them was a delightful and thoughtful memoir by Anne Berube titled Be. Feel. Think. Do. The author shares how she learned to prioritize being and feeling over thinking and doing in order to experience her life more richly, fully, and true to her deepest callings and dreams. She makes the point over and over again that we can choose our attitudes and can adjust our perspectives. 

Berube recalls that Viktor Frankl, commenting on the horrors of the concentration camps, explained that prisoners who were able to help others and imagine a positive future fared better than those caught up in despair. And she recounts a Buddhist fable in which an aging master, who had grown tired of his apprentice’s complaints, asked the apprentice to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it and then take that same handful of salt and throw it in a lake and then drink that water. The apprentice comments that the water in the glass is bitter but the water in the lake is fresh. The master quietly says: “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less.  The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

No question about it—I am a lake. Yes I broke my ankle but I’ve been grateful for so much during this time of being a patient patient… grateful for friends; grateful for my attentive daughters and grandchildren; grateful for where I live; grateful for the signs of nature as spring unfolds; grateful for the care I received in that emergency department; grateful that my bone is healing; grateful for books; grateful for the opportunity to slow down and have time for reflection. Being a patient patient has its blessings!