Do you have a favorite Christmas song? We all do, even if we don’t celebrate Christmas. We all notice ourselves whistling or humming along to a tune on the radio with an inevitable shoulder wiggle to the happy tunes that seems to follow us into every venue during the month of December. Two weeks ago, when I was on shift in the intensive care unit (ICU), the family of a patient I had been caring for all week came in and surrounded her bed. I was sitting at a computer station close to her room, and suddenly heard “Last Christmas” by Wham! playing. It’s not often that one hears music in the ICU – the only sounds are typically a flurry of alarms that signal at different pitches and speeds to help the listener quickly decipher the acuity of the distress. Happy, winsome music is not the norm.
Then the family, which consisted of her adult children, their spouses and some nieces, all started singing. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart… but the very next day, you gave it away….” They had horrible pitch; all singing at different tempos. “This year, to save me from tears… I’ll give it to someone special.” I noticed my forehead wrinkling as I tried to hold back tears, but they came anyway, a steady quiet stream of thick salty drops welled up in my eyes and down my cheeks. I wrapped it up and sent it… with a note saying, “I love you, ” I meant it”… Music unites us. It brings us together, and it’s what we recognize, even when we are about to take our last breaths. They were saying goodbye to their mom.
One of the daughters peeked out to me, and asked, “Is this ok? It’s her favorite song.” I sniffed back my tears, smiled and nodded, Of course it is. They played it over and over again and sang it to her, over and over again, for the next hour until she passed. They let her go with the embrace of music, and their united voices, in love and tribute to her.
The holidays are strange, aren’t they? We look forward to them for the time off, but we often forget that it is a time to connect and unite. Look to the person next to you and ask them what their favorite Christmas song is, then tell them yours. We never know when it may be our Last Christmas. And when it is, I hope they sing you your favorite song too.
The other day, I had the privilege of hearing one of my life heroes and greatest inspirations speak, Atul Gawande. He is a Harvard CT surgeon that has dedicated his life to the betterment of his craft and society as a whole (read his books “Better” and “The Checklist Manifesto”). He regularly contributes to the New Yorker and embarks upon medical missions to Africa and India to provide health care assistance. He is my ultimate hero and I hope to grow up one day to be even half the physician and human he is. In his talk, he discussed the continual need for coaching and mentorship. This struck me as so fascinating, because we don’t talk about this in medicine. We think, once we are done with our formal residency training, and become board-certified, then we are done with our education. Sure, we have ongoing continuing medical education requirements, but for the most part, your time is meant to be spent solely in service of your patients, and you are to be their expert. You continue to learn by reading, not by formal mentorship. Your patients want to believe that you know everything; that if there is even an errant cell in your body, you will identify it and shield them from all the worst case scenarios. Even I want my doctor my Superman! But, she is human too. She’ll do her best with her many years of medical experience and life sacrifices to know what to do when I am ill, and to prevent disease from overtaking. But it still stands that she cannot know everything, and sometimes she may have habits that she doesn’t even know about. The best thing that we, as health care providers, can do, is to know and acknowledge our shortcomings. Because human disease is a completely human process. And often we don’t know our shortcomings until a kind observer clues us in. There are so many subtleties to the practice of medicine, that it may be impossible to see unless it is pointed out to you under the guidance and mentorship of someone who is appointed to the task. And to you, the reader, how can you apply this to your career/life/craft? How we can humble ourselves enough to remember that we will always require guidance, no matter what path we choose? How can we reach out with an open heart and continually ask ourselves, “How, in my life of service, can I be better?”