It’s inevitable. Whenever I tell people I work as an emergency physician, they nearly always respond with some variation of, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?” Actually, I take that back. First, they look at me with doubtful eyes and tell me I look too young to be a doctor. I reveal I’m older than I look and am indeed fully credentialed to do this line of work. That’s usually reassuring enough. Then, they ask me The Question.
Wide eyes of anticipation often accompany this question. Like people are hoping – no, expecting – me to give an answer that will blow their minds and leave them wondering about the meaning of human existence for the next week. It’s a lot of pressure. Unlike other professions privy to potentially outrageous situations, like international espionage, I can’t hide behind the tired old line of I can tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. What I can, and do, withhold is the identity of patients. That’s a legal and privacy matter. Since I work at a large hospital in Los Angeles, curious minds have unsuccessfully pushed against that envelope many a time in hopes of hearing something worthy of TMZ.
In my early practice years, I gave pretty straight answers to The Question. I would describe the time I helped crack open a dying trauma patient’s chest to manually massage the heart to keep it beating. Or, I recounted the teenage boy stabbed in the base of his skull with an 8-inch knife by a rival gang. We had to creatively find a way to insert a breathing tube to protect his airway without disturbing the knife still stuck in the back of his head. An even more dramatic case involved a man who suffered a cardiac arrest in a hotel room after overdosing on sexual enhancement pills while having an extra-marital affair. We tried for over an hour to resuscitate him in the ER, but he died. His mistress at the bedside was so distraught that she made an impromptu vow to die with him. She grabbed a pair of hospital scissors and tried to stab herself right then and there. Fortunately, our staff prevented her from actually injuring herself, or anyone else, and we admitted her as a psychiatric patient. These stories made for great conversation starters (and occasionally, enders), but I wanted to find a different way to answer. Something more… creative.
For a brief time, I experimented with fabricating a story to see if someone could tell it wasn’t true. Perhaps more to entertain myself than anyone else. I would say something like, “Just the other night, we had this gnarly motorcycle accident victim who plunged 200 feet off a cliff and got decapitated by the trees on the way down. Luckily, his helmet protected his detached head and we were able to sew it back on to his body in the ER. And. He. Lived. Wow!” I was surprised by how many people took me seriously. So many, in fact, that I decided this was not a proper way to answer The Question anymore. Even after I revealed the story was fake, some people were still left in a daze for several minutes. Maybe they really were pondering the meaning of human existence.
And these days, so am I. The delightful process of aging has also brought about maturation in my views on issues like faith, fear, relationships, and love. Correspondingly, I’m also approaching The Question from a different angle now. Different stories come to mind. As someone with a heart for international medicine, I’ve been able to explore the world in many ways that others will not. On medical mission trips, I’ve seen the complete breakdown of human society when people are oppressed and living in abject poverty. I’ve looked into the eyes of young girls rescued from sex trafficking as they recall their tragic stories. Some of these girls were under the age of ten when they were first sold, often by their own families, into the sex trade. On the flip side, I have also witnessed the remarkable persistence of hope and perseverance by community leaders who believe their developing nation can have a better tomorrow. I have watched the exploited girls grow up into young women healed from their past who are now actively pursuing their dreams to become productive members of society.
These latter experiences are more likely the ones I will tell you today if you ask me The Question. If I’m going to encapsulate my work life in a story or two, I’d rather tell you something that really has made me think twice about what life is truly all about. What does make for a crazy, and meaningful, story that will go beyond a quick titillation of the senses? Which scenes in my life have been the most memorable and personally impactful? Perhaps it’s not something that took place in the ER, but rather something out there in the very large world beyond the hospital walls. Ask me. Even I’m curious to hear what my next answer will be.