Learning to Walk the Healer’s Path

–Erik Brodt

Three minutes and thirty seconds remained in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Section 6A boys’ basketball final. Showcasing a fake plant step, our All-State point guard sends his opponent to the floor again. Dribbling around the flopping contender, number 5 pulls up and sinks a fifteen-foot jumper to put Cass-Lake up by four. But there is a turn of fate. Floating down from his jump shot, our point guard landed on the foot of another player, twisting his ankle inward and sending him to the floor in agony. Hearts dropped with the crowd’s deep gasp. Silence. I gulped nervously as my time was at hand. I composed myself and strolled onto the court to help our star as thousands looked on.

“Three minutes and thirty seconds!” she shouted as I threw myself into my disaster gown. “Estimated time of arrival, three minutes and thirty seconds!”

My hands quivered cold with sweat as my fingerprints formed though my  latex gloves. Confusion rested on my shoulder. I didn’t know what, but I could feel something horrible happening. That day, now eternally etched into my mind, had begun as a splendid day. Each step was light, walking between medicine clinic and the women’s health wardto visit a laboring mother and evaluate a baby I had delivered in the morning.

Wearing a wide grin of connection and accomplishment, I fought to contain the giddy chuckles of becoming a doctor. When all is well, being a doctor is bliss. Pulling the hospital door, it didn’t budge. Puzzling. Why was our rural hospital locked in the middle of the day? My pager sounded, I was needed in the ER immediately. March 21 will never be another day to me. No day will.

As a third-year medical student I performed a nine-month rural clerkship at North Country Regional Hospital in Bemidji, Minnesota. I chose Bemidji to be close to my family and the three largest Minnesota Chippewa Reservations. I am Anishinaabe (Chippewa) and it was the perfect opportunity for me to invest in the Native community during medical school. Little did I know how profound an impact the experience would have on me, especially on the afternoon when a young man entered Red Lake High School, shooting thirteen people and killing eight, including himself.

Reprinted from The Country Doctor Revisited (Kent State University Press, 2010) with permission from the author.

As a medical student completing a 9-month clerkship in a hospital near the Red Lake reservation, Dr. Brodt cared for the victims of a tragic shooting. It was particularly challenging because he had spent summers with his grandparents on the reservation and knew many of the victims and their families. Triaging and treating the patients injured in this kind of disaster is difficult for any health care provider. Because Dr. Brodt knew the families, it added another layer to the calamity. Because the community had just celebrated the men’s basketball team competing in the state finals, the community’s elation quickly crashed with the tragedy.

In earlier posts we have talked about the blurring of boundaries that occur in small communities. Our patients are often our friends. This is both positive and negative. Together the community mourned, but as a nurse or doctor that day, Dr. Brodt and his colleagues had to put their feelings aside and do what needed to be done. I often think of it as pushing a hold button on my feelings so that I can do the A,B, Cs–airway, breathing, cardiac . . . Once the work is done, I release the hold button.  In his essay in The Country Doctor Revisited, Dr. Brodt reflects on how he and the community struggled to heal from that tragic day.

As physicians we witness the best and worst of times in the lives of our patients and the communities we care for. In order to stay healthy ourselves, so we do not become jaded and cynical, it is important that each of us figures out how to care for ourselves. We may see some colleagues turn to alcohol, drugs, too much work or other behaviors that keep them from facing the real issues. Life is filled with good times and bad times and ultimately we have very little control.

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