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Staying Over Our Skates

One winter weekend, I was walking in a local park that has an ice-skating rink. I stopped to watch the skaters for a few minutes. I’m not a skater myself, but I appreciated the skaters’ wide range of ages and abilities.

Off to one side of the rink, I saw a young boy struggling to skate. He was hanging onto one of the walker frames that were provided, his face a mixture of determination, frustration and a hint of fear as he struggled to stay upright and move forward. Around him, many other skaters flowed by with ease.

The boy’s expression, and struggles, immediately resonated with me as a metaphor for my outpatient family practice.

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic (which has been superimposed over the ongoing pandemic of caregiver burnout), my patient visits are often a jarring mix: In close succession, patients who are suffering the aftereffects of COVID-19 infection in themselves or their loved ones are followed by patients who are either reluctant to get vaccinated or outright opposed to it.

I find shuttling back and forth between one patient’s agony and another’s apathy almost vertiginously exhausting. In addition, our city has suffered a dramatic increase in violence, which has magnified my patients’ suffering yet further. The murder rate in our city is nearly triple the rate of prepandemic times, and there have been increases in intimate-partner violence as well. Compounding all of this are the pandemic-spawned economic and social disruptions: shortages in support staff, meaning extra work for those who remain; patients needing more paperwork and forms filled out to justify unplanned absences; patients needing more resources (counseling, financial assistance for meds and transportation) to cope in a changed world.

With the emergence of the Omicron variant, and with the issuing of new testing recommendations and treatment protocols several times daily, I’ve definitely felt like that boy on the ice—clinging to anything at hand so as not to fall on my face while trying to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of moving ahead. And though I suspect that my colleagues have been struggling as well, many of them seem to move through their clinical sessions with a grace that stands in stark contrast to my own experience.

After watching the boy struggle for a few minutes, I witnessed a beautiful moment. A slightly older child, more confident on his skates, approached him and said, “Here. Hold my hand, I’ll help you.”

With that small gesture, I saw something change for the struggling boy. With just a few minutes of guidance, he seemed suddenly to grasp how to move his skates in order to stay upright and move forward. As I continued to watch, he glided among the other skaters with increasing confidence and fluidity, at times even smiling. The older child skated off, working on his own skills.

Similarly, in my own work, I’ve been struck by what a huge impact a small gesture of help or kindness can have. A thoughtful holiday card from a patient, a staff member’s proactively taking extra time to solve a patient’s problem, a colleague’s offer to help out with a challenging case—all of these help me to get back into my rhythm and to feel that moving forward is possible after all.

As all of us—patients, family members, medical professionals—do our best to navigate the rapidly changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant angst and despair, I believe that, at times, we must all feel like that struggling skater. Try as we will to convey confidence and calm, we must all have moments in which we feel utterly bereft of the skills needed to move forward even an inch.

At the same time, I’m convinced that we all have within us the ability to act as the more skilled older skater for another person. Kindness won’t cure COVID-19, but it can at least help us to ease the way forward for ourselves and others.

Something as simple as a kind word, a bit of extra help or a listening ear can help each and every one of us to make our way around this overwhelming rink without falling.

Deborah Pierce is a clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester, NY. Four of her stories, PhototherapySpecial DeliveryFriday Before Christmas and Concierge Care, have appeared in Pulse. “Writing and photography are some of the ways I process the emotions and experience of my work.” The photograph accompanying this story is hers.

Comments

10 thoughts on “Staying Over Our Skates”

  1. Thank you. I am not in the medical profession but as a long term carer/advocate for several family members with a rare and complex genetic disease I/we often come in contact with medical services and all I can say is that we admire your selfless work. I can see that you have been pushed to the limit, that you are exhausted yet still most of you carry on. Thank you.

    We make a point of saying thank you and occasionally dropping off biscuits or sweets to the people involved in my family’s care. It’s just a small gesture and I’m glad it helps.

    :

    I am a poet and a part time writing for wellbeing practitioner now facilitating workshops from home via Zoom. I absolutely recommend using the arts for processing stressful events and for celebrating happier moments and creative communities. We don’t have to be artisans, it’s the process that counts. Remember making mud pies as children? Yeah, something like that.

  2. Katharine Barnard

    Thank you Deborah, for so aptly describing the current reality but placing it in the context of kindness. Indeed, the moments of connection and joy are what give me the energy to keep showing up.

  3. Deborah,
    Thank you for writing this. You express so eloquently what we all have experienced.Thanks for your gift. May you continue your work in strength and love.
    Sheila

  4. There are many acquaintances names racing through my mind right now, who I’m so wanting to share this with- in hopes that it would flick on that lightbulb in their sensibilities & once & for all get a grip on this situation.
    Beautiful story- thanks

  5. As our world has dramatically changed, the kindness of a stranger has become the fabric and strength we collectively see in humanity, of-course the children seem to teach us the most valuable lessons. I am hopeful we can learn from these small acts of nurture and not let nature defeat our will to move forward as clinicians when faced with adversity and difference. I am hopeful we continue to bring comfort to those who suffer, and I am hopeful these conversations keep reminding us of the reasons why we choose to be a part of the “healing process”. Thank you for this reminder.

  6. Thank you. as a graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and current flagging young (I think? 7 years into attendinghood of which just under half has been covid, I don’t feel young anymore) family medicine attending in covid-laden TX, I’ve realized recently that I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in 1, and I miss the doctor I was pre-pandemic. Obviously it’s burnout, but I have a hard time imaging how medicine as we knew it will survive the moral injury of this pandemic.
    The smallest, seemingly strangest little kindnesses make me fall to my knees in thankfulness these days. Thanks for offering your hand.

  7. Brava, Deborah! Indeed this is a beautiful
    story and photo. Thank you for the work you do, for your sensitivity, and for sharing it all in a world now sorely hungering for yes, this kindness.

  8. “Vertiginously exhausting” is such a wonderful description of the whiplash experience of patient care. Your story is very “touching” and beautiful. Thank you.

  9. This is such a beautiful story. It so perfectly captures the struggles of caregivers who are working through a very difficult time with grace, love, and kindness.
    Lois Van Tol

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