The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book "Right Brain Rescue: One physician's journey from burnout to bliss", due for publication 2020. It's a modern exploration of our medical system and the healing power of creativity and neuroplasticity.
Doctors and morticians are essentially the same: Magicians with a sleight of hand. They enable us to temporarily distract from the gritty truth of reality in front of us.
Think about it. Next time you’re sitting before your physician—as a sickly heap of fever, cough and disease— you’re asking, “Really, doc….level with me: How close to Death am I?!” Consequently, when your cold body is delivered to a mortician, what you’re really asking is, “How close to Life can you make me look?”
This job belonged to my mother.
As a 4 year old, I’d stand on my tip toes, craning my neck to watch her sweep cerulean eye shadow across lids and puff powder on sunken cheeks. At a time when other kids were mesmerized by the back-and-forth glow of Atari’s “Pong,” I was entranced by my mother’s lipstick application: back and forth. Back and forth. Tracing the lines. Until magically, the corpse’s vacant face had a luscious mouth again.
When her artistry was finished, you couldn’t notice the thin line of super glue keeping the embalmed lips from springing open, or the plastic eye caps that gave the illusion of eyeballs peacefully resting in sockets.
I wondered about these life-size Sleeping Beauties: did they ever look this fancy in their 78 breathing years? Would tomorrow’s conversation be filled with comments like,
“Mee-Maw never looked so glam!”
“Nana was a winter. This spring palette is all wrong for her skin type.”
“Gladys was allergic to cosmetics. I hope the mortician used non-comedogenic makeup.”
And then there’s always that one Random Person: standing away from the crowd, never shaking a hand from the family greeting line. Look as hard as you want, you’ll never find their signature in the Guest Book. Instead, they’ll perch from a respectful distance, blinking back shimmering tears. It’s these people that intrigued me the most. They enlivened my mind with stories of possibility. Trying to crack the code of history they shared with Sleeping Beauty.
Were they lab partners in sophomore Chemistry class? Arch rivals on the debate team? Coworkers that lost touch after retirement? Neighbors that reached for the same crusty corndog at the annual block party, exchanging knowing glances so their spouses don’t see?
Yet, every time, my preferred conclusion settled on the romantically enigmatic: perhaps these people were the only ones not surprised Sleeping Beauty’s serene, otherworldly appearance.
She always looked this beautiful in their eyes.
Morticians search for ways to display Life. Doctors also excavate signs of Life by determining: how alive is the patient in front of me? This directs all further care whether you’re a trauma surgeon or a psychiatrist. How brightly does this flame burn? What’s causing it to dim?
And here I was, strapped into the helicopter, scanning the eyes of the flight nurse and doctor for my answers. I needed to see my burning flame reflected in their eyes. How alive am I? How close to death have I slipped? Tell me.
Med flight helicopters embody the adage “There’s a place for everything and everything has its’ place.” I’m convinced my Finnish grandmother, Elsie, was consulted in this design. That woman could live in this tiny cockpit of essentials. Forget tiny homes, she’s bunking in an abandoned med flight copter in heaven. I’m certain of it.
The inside walls are an extravagant display of sterile medical equipment, each piece properly positioned in a puzzle of awe. No wasted space here. The nurse and doctor are equally compact. There’s gotta be an employment contract limiting the amount of Oreos you can consume per year.
They resembled mini prison Oompa-Loompas, dressed in orange jump suits. Dutifully checking clip boards, exchanging “thumbs up” signs to enliven this fun excursion. When I couldn’t read their eyes, I tried to measure their thumb energy. Was that an urgent-looking “thumbs up”? Was that a hasty check mark on that clipboard?
Yes? No. Maybe?
That looked like a calm thumb.
I feel my right brain click on. Creating an imaginary scenario to help me cope. Mayyyyyybe we’re just here, having afternoon gab session like good ol’ medical colleagues! Next round of tapas is on me, guys!
Instead of a hipster wine bar, we just happen to be flying 1,000 ft above the ground, rushing my body to a trauma center. Just for giggles, right?
I notice I’ve become a table to them. I’m now an accessory to rest their papers and forms. Equipment is placed on my chest. They unroll IV tubing and hang bags above my head. Clipboard sits on my abdomen.
Hey guys? This is really harshing my mellow wine bar fantasy. What’s your favorite reds?
They place heavy noise-canceling earphones on me. Rude.
I’m interrupted by the reminder of warmth. Levels below their clipboards and equipment. Below the gurney straps, the heavy blankets, towels and leggings….my blood found its’ way into the imaginary conversation too. Now dripping off the sides, it lands on the steel floor.
Another example of when silence is NOT golden: during the 17 minute ride to the nearest metropolitan hospital. My fictional Girl’s Night evaporates into a flurry of cortisol-fueled panic. What are they saying? Why are they placing a large bore IV? What is my blood pressure? How’s my EKG looking? How long before I have a heart attack or stroke? Will I feel it? How many units of blood is there in my body? Will there be a white light? Did I put the wet laundry in the dryer? SOMEONE NEEDS TO PUT THE LAUNDRY IN THE DRYER OR IT WILL SMELL LIKE A MIDDLE SCHOOL LOCKER ROOM.
My orange companions give no information. This is all part of a day in their office. Water cooler talk that I can’t hear. I’m just a desk to shuffle papers on. I absorb their routine-ness like calming rain. I begin my mantra: This is all going to be okay. Going to be okay.