One False Move
Recently, my son Tyler and I went to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama to drive a NASCAR race car, in celebration of his nineteenth birthday. Under the watchful eye of a professional driver in the passenger seat, we took turns driving a race car around the world’s fastest track. Standing five stories high and banked at 33 degrees, the Talladega track allowed us to reach speeds that topped 170 miles per hour. Driving that fast felt just like my early experiences in the operating room; I was both exhilarated and frightened. One false move would spell disaster.
When I was a young doctor, the drama of life-and-death situations appealed to me. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I directed the operating room team, scalpel in hand, barking out orders like a sergeant to his troops under enemy fire.
I think as a young man I enjoyed feeling important.
I’ve never liked braggarts, so I hope I projected some modesty. But I was charged up by the drama and my role in it, and in retrospect, I suspect I swaggered around the operating room despite myself. Nowadays, I never swagger, and I don’t feel important, either.
Mostly I am highly concerned to the point of being terrified.
Racing To Save a Life
This Wednesday morning, a call from the delivery room nurse woke me up at four. A laboring patient had just arrived at hospital. She was bleeding, nowhere close to delivering, and her baby’s heart rate was faltering. Her baby was dying. I told the nurse to set up the operating room for an emergency c-section. I ran to my car and screeched out of my driveway.
It was Talladega time.
I am careful when I drive fast. I gathered speed, hazard lights flashing, punching a few red lights along the empty road before finally opening up my engine. My speedometer crawled into some high numbers. Already this week I had witnessed the unexpected loss of an 18-week-old pregnancy, and the pain a mother and family experience when hope is shattered.
I didn’t want to see any more.
This wasn’t fun like a birthday lap around the racetrack with my son. When I reached the hospital, I ran up the stairs, arriving just as the patient was being placed on the operating room table. By the time I had washed my hands and caught my breath, the anesthesia team had done their job. I could make the incision. In less than a minute, the baby’s head could be lifted free. The baby’s arm, when I grasped it, had the muscle tone of a live baby, not the terrifying ragdoll floppiness that signifies unconsciousness, or even death.
This baby was okay. I breathed a sigh of relief and profound thanks.
However, my blood pressure remained elevated the rest of the day.
Grief and Joy
I became a doctor because I wanted to be in people’s lives in those moments I believe really matter. I was drawn to OB/GYN because I am awed to witness the miracle of birth, and drawn to help in the sudden emergencies that require my utmost concentration and ability. The moment when a baby is ready to leave his or her mother’s body, so much is at stake.
Will we celebrate the miracle or grieve the tragedy?
But as I have matured, I have come to understand this: every moment of our life hangs in the balance. We are just as much at the junction of life and death in this very moment as we are in any surgical emergency. We live biologically mortal lives, and none of us are promised tomorrow. We are racing around a track, always at that point of losing control, never knowing when our lives will be shattered.
Life is fragile. The image of the baby’s death earlier in the week, and my patient’s grief, dogged my thoughts that day like a fragment of a song I couldn’t shake from my mind. How does a family survive the loss of a baby, just before the baby shower?
As we endeavor to relieve our suffering, we reach out for answers. When we pay attention, God does answer, and the answer is always the same. Our lives are not biological accidents – they are spiritual inevitabilities. We are each a manifestation of God’s Love, and we are thus each blessed with spiritual immortality.
Grief – no matter the pain – is a spiritual gift, once we understand.
As we heal, we see this simple truth: the tears we shed at funerals are the confetti used in Heaven.
-Dr. Mike Litrel