The attending swiftly went room to room checking in and managing all the patients I had seen. He asked, “What’s important?”
I replied, “Making sure that he doesn’t have septic arthritis,” when we saw the patient with the swollen big toe.
We went into the next room, “He asked again, what important to you?”
I replied with this patient, “Making sure that he doesn’t have AAA,” as we saw the patient with back pain and vascular risk factors.
We returned to the computer station, and he clarified, “What I meant was, what is important to YOU the most?”
I was completely focused on the patients, trying not to miss any details, and confused that he reentered our previous conversation ten minutes prior where we were talking about career choices and how he became an emergency medicine physician. I failed to catch on that he was continuing that conversation as we saw patients.
He proceeded, “I have a friend who became a surgeon. He was happy with his choice, but one day he told me, ‘If my son walked into this room today, I would not recognize him.’”
Though an extreme example, he continued, “You have to figure out what matters the most to you in your life.”
The night faded away as we proceeded with task after task, seeing patient after patient, performing procedure after procedure.
As I was driving home after the shift into the early hours of the morning in the quiet/stillness of my car, no talk radio, no news, no music, as I often did after seeing patients for the day, reflecting on the people who I interacted with, I realized I never answered the question that Dr. B asked me. It didn’t feel natural to answer. It felt more rhetorical and something to ponder.
I got home and crawled into bed after having four shifts that were 3-11pm. I pealed Anthony’s hand away from his side of his body and crawled under his arm, bringing as much of my existence as close as possible to his. I felt homesick for him. I could hardly believe it! I thought, “How silly, Sarah, how can you be homesick for someone you live with!”
I thought about the last couple of days and how opposite of schedules we had, and then I thought about the last couple of weeks and how much I was not present in the day, even when I got half a day with him on a Sunday, I couldn’t let my mind free in the moment, thinking about the future of having to go to work later in the afternoon, or when I got home after working on a Saturday, too tired to fully enjoy being out to dinner with him and friends. I hadn’t had two days off in a row, and I felt completely un-refreshed, labored, and unappreciative of the beauty of life, barely present in whatever moment I was experiencing.
I thought how easy to answer Dr. B’s question as I laid under the pressure of Anthony’s heavy arm, him grumbling, recognizing I was home, exchanging our “I love you’s” and him slipping back into his dreams that I interrupted (and hopefully was a part of).
I realized how much it really mattered to me. How much it really kept me healthy to return home every night to Anthony. To run together at the gym, to eat dinner together, to do work side by side on the couch on our laptops watching our TV shows, to lie next to each other in bed, to participate in the mundane that we mindlessly participate in every day. I actually missed it. I missed the mundane.
I briefly flashed into the future and thought how much more difficult it will be when it’s not only Anthony who I don’t get to see every night but when it is our beautiful children. Our children who I won’t be able to check their homework, to make them dinner every night, to nag them to make sure to brush their teeth after ice cream, to chase them to their bedrooms to settle down for the evening, and to stroke their beautiful silky hair away from their eyes as they fall heavy into sleep, lying on my chest listening to bedtime stories or reading to me their favorite, as I once experienced with my mom and dad and cherished doing with my younger sisters as they grew old.
I realized really how much I valued the mundane and that maybe the mundane isn’t so mundane. The nightly routines that close the day, that wrap their arms around us with their soft, gentle embrace, easing us into the next day, are something I find great comfort and value in, even contributing to my identity.
So as high as I scored in a survey directing me to emergency medicine as a specialty and as much as I loved the experience of working in the emergency room, the balance between using your mind to diagnose, making critical decisions quickly and using your hands to perform procedures: intubating, suturing, reseting fractured bones, drawing blood, giving chest compressions; performing a cricothyrotomies, commanding diagnostic tools like ultrasounds, x-rays, and CTs interpreting images before the radiologists can make their official reports; providing health care access to those who have no place else to go; serving the poorest of our society; and helping those who, like of all us, have had accidents in our lives where we need emergent care; I could not let go of the mundane. I deeply love the mundane and would miss it too much, being homesick for the routines that Monday through Friday, the 9-5pm schedule offers and creates orderliness to the busy-ness of life, weekends to anticipate and plan, and opportunities to clear my mind of work-ly tasks and create enough space for the chance to look forward to the following week reappearing.
Loving the mundane, appreciating the mundane, experiencing the mundane, makes it absolutely far, far from being anything close to mundane.