Updated for a WI Writers' Association reading today.
In the middle of a quiet summer afternoon in the Operating Room, we received a call.
A patient, a child, was en route to us from the Emergency Room.
Immediately we heard voices and clanging equipment in our outer hall as the patient arrived.
Three years old, had been hit by a car.
Intubated, his breathing assisted by an anesthesiologist, he was transferred to the OR table as we rapidly got everything ready. Nurses and surgical techs worked together to scrub his torso with soap, open and set up instruments, and help surgeons and assistants into sterile gowns. Lots of people, lots of talking, lots of commotion.
The surgeon was known for being particular about using specific instruments, and as he made the incision he yelled that he didn’t have his “special” goddamn suction tube.
Our head nurse yelled back that he wasn’t much of a goddamn surgeon if he couldn’t manage this emergency without his special goddamn suction tube. I had never heard her raise her voice to a surgeon, or to anyone, before. The surgeon stopped yelling.
It soon became apparent that the procedure was futile. The room quieted, extra people left and eventually the surgery concluded with the abdomen being quickly sutured closed and the anesthesia withdrawn.
As the child lay dead on the table, we removed IV lines, tenderly washed blood and debris from his body, placed him in a clean gown and covered him to his chin with a soft blanket.
He was so tiny. No one spoke. Tears were shed. Some of us had three-year olds at home. I did.
I remember going home late that afternoon, wanting to talk about what had happened, but not finding words that could convey the story.
That was a day in the OR, and in the OR, there was at least a story a day.
On a Friday in March, 2020, the YMCA was rather quiet. There was a feeling of uncertainty as my class participants filed into the yoga studio. There were fewer participants than usual, and before class we quietly discussed what was happening in the world, and wondered aloud what might soon happen. At the end of class, I think many of us sensed a finality. The following week brought changes we could hardly bring ourselves to imagine the week before.
I've written this piece in the form of a Vinyasa; what movement to breath is called in the practice of yoga.
On that last day, that unforeseen but later so obviously last day,
was there a tingle, a breeze, a premonition?
Spacing them far apart on mats, unconsciously enacting the coming normal,
were we rushing towards something, or was it rushing towards us?
Guiding them through pose after pose, tightening, holding, relaxing,
thoughts beginning to crystalize, reality becoming clear.
Sensing the irony of encouraging their full, deep breaths,
no longer quite trusting the air around us.
Bringing them to rest in that final savasana, the corpse pose,
hoping it wasn’t a grim prediction.
Experiencing unity for possibly the last time, for now,
then, goodbye, stay safe, my dear ones.
I've focused on many things during the past few months. Although I've found it difficult to write about much of it, I've had some thoughts. Amazed at the vitriol directed at a simple and effective tool that I was accustomed to using on an everyday basis, here is a brief thought.
We wore masks all day, every day, in the Operating Room.
Paper, with ties.
Adjustable and fitted to the face, no gaps.
Top ties first, bottom gently pulled down, fitted under the chin.
Bottom ties next, in a bow.
Last, top pressed against the bridge of the nose.
Breath felt warm, glasses fogged at first.
A relaxed, gentle breath, and another.
Soon the mask felt like part of the face.
We wore masks all day, every day, to prevent infection,
to keep every person safe,
following trusted, scientific guidelines.
No controversy, no arguments, no mixed messages,
The Island started as a short memoir that I posted in December, 2019. Early this year, I reworked The Island as a poem and posted it again. I then decided to enter it in a competition sponsored by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. I made a few changes and to my amazement, The Island was chosen, along with the works of many other Wisconsin poets, to be part of the Fellowship's 2021 calendar. The theme of the competition was "Home". At the time the theme was announced, I doubt anyone realized just how much time we were all going to spend at home, or how we might long for the places we think of as home but were unable to visit because of the pandemic. For the third, and I promise the last, time, here is The Island.
1970, reporting to naval duty.
Young, newlywed, possessions packed into a car.
Midwesterners, hadn’t even known Georgia had a coast.
Paint-peeling shacks. Tall, proud pines,
Then winding through marshes to the island.
Dunes, spiraling sea grass, long, wide, white beach.
Immense space, sky huge and blue, sunlit water.
Long-legged birds playing with crashing waves.
Salty spray. Wind roaring. Hearts filling.
Didn’t know we would walk this beach
for hours, talking, planning, growing;
drive off island late one night, return as a family of three;
stroll in soft twilight, the ocean lulling a baby to sleep.
Didn’t know we would someday
yearn for this place,
returning in reality and daydreams,
pulled by the tides.
Spending long days together in tiny operating rooms, completing multiple surgical procedures, my colleagues and I took care of our patients, and each other.
We didn’t have Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, but we knew each other well anyway. News of family accomplishments and hardship, pregnancies, home purchases, vacations and restaurant experiences was absorbed as easily as breathing. We cheered the good, and commiserated the sad, fostering closeness, a bond.
To accomplish our work, we had to be physically close. We positioned ourselves in much proximity, tying each others surgical gowns, leaning into torsos while assisting at the sterile field, reaching around bodies and legs to connect equipment, nullifying any possibility of personal space.
We provided intimate care that could only be acceptable in our setting. Scrubbed in, unable to touch one’s face, that face will almost certainly start to itch. When a masked and gowned person came towards me, head extended, I knew to offer my shoulder or back so a nose, chin, forehead could be rubbed on me, conquering the itch.
A surgeon with a heavy cold once needed specific help. Removing his mask, holding my gloved and tissue laden hand to his nose, I encouraged him to blow, performing a task I thought I was finished with when my son turned 6.
I was a second assistant on one case, holding instruments, so the surgeon and first assistant could efficiently operate.
In this instance though, the first assistant was a surgeon being monitored because of his poor technique and bad outcomes.
Things weren’t going well. The chief surgeon was angry to the point of rage, but couldn’t bring himself to chastise the inept surgeon he was monitoring. He could, however, blame me. So he did.
Trapped, miserable and silent during the endless procedure, tears slipped into my mask and snot from my runny nose dripped into my mouth.
My colleagues comforted me, rubbing my ankle in the guise of adjusting a foot pedal, giving me eye-rolling smiles, miming shooting the surgeon (just kidding, I’m sure), making the situation more bearable. Making me feel cared for.
I think of healthcare workers all over the world, working in difficult circumstances during the pandemic. Masked, gowned, gloved and goggled. Tired and stressed. Worried about their patients and their own families.
I know they’re caring for their colleagues in ways large and small.
I know they are.
I know that bond.
In the late 90’s, the ones in the last century, I mentioned Google to a friend who had not yet heard the word. Google went on to become a household name and to this day my friend thinks I’m a technology genius as if I had something to do with that.
I’ve already mentioned my love of technology in previous posts, so it will come as no surprise that I’m a fan of Google.
While volunteering to help patrons at the public library with computer issues, I use Google to solve problems I’m unfamiliar with. Just typing “How can I” and the problem often gives me the answer I need, while making me look as if I know what I’m doing.
Searching for something good to watch during quarantine? Type “Best on Netflix now”, and lots of options appear.
Hours that a business is open? If a business is open? Google.
Want to settle a bet? Google. Trying to identify a rash? Google.
Wondering about the side effects of a medication? You know what to do.
Recently I ventured out to shop. These days, similar to many of us I’m sure, my wish is to get in, get out and get home, with as little interaction with others as possible.
After completing my shopping, I found myself in my car, wanting to drive home but unable to do so. For no apparent reason, the ignition was locked, something that had happened once before in the distant past.
I had a feeling turning the steering wheel would unlock the ignition, so I tried turning the wheel to the right. Nope. To the left. Didn’t work. The steering wheel itself was locked, and the key simply would not turn.
I sat back and thought about it. What was I missing?
Was I going to have to call AARP Road and Tow for this ridiculous reason?
No, I was not, because I was going to call Google.
I grabbed my phone and typed in “locked ignition rav4” and the answer came back immediately.
Turn the steering wheel to the right while at the same time turning the key in the ignition.
It worked instantly. The steering wheel and ignition unlocked smoothly and I was soon ready to be on my way.
Before I drove off, I decided to make a note of my experience in case I ever wanted to write about it. My phone was next to me on the seat, so I simply said “Hey Siri” and dictated what I wanted the note to say. When I was done, Siri confirmed my request. Almost automatically, I thanked Siri, who said, “You’re welcome, Terri”.
I LOL'd, because just for a moment, Google and Siri and I seemed almost like friends, working together, solving problems, getting things done, no social distancing necessary.
And then I shook my head and drove home.
Early this morning I walked the path of the parkway near our home, along the Menomonee River, as I’ve done many times.
Far ahead were two figures, standing, facing each other at opposite sides of the paved, 10-foot wide path. Also on the path, a few walkers, runners and bikers were coming towards me.
Walking, I thought about my plans for the day. Not so much what I would do, but what I wouldn’t.
Today I would not teach an aqua class at the YMCA, or a tai chi or yoga class either.
A couple walked past. I glanced at them, lifted a hand, and they did the same. My lips silently formed the words “good morning”. So did theirs.
I eyed the figures, still far ahead, still facing each other at opposite sides of the path. Two men, talking and gesticulating.
A runner came by, avoiding eye contact. So did a dog walker, although I smiled at the dog when it looked my way.
As I got a little closer to the talking men, my eyes measured the distance between them. They were at a socially acceptable distance from each other. If I walked between them at the center of the path, I would not be.
Should I walk around one of them? How far around? I still had time to decide.
Today was also not a day I would be volunteering at the library. I would not be lunching with a friend, or handing out early voting flyers at the DMV. I would not be going to my favorite coffee shop to write my blog, or catching a movie at the cinema in the mall.
As I walked closer to the men, they each moved back, on to the grass, widening their distance by several feet. My decision made, I walked down the center of the path between them.
Not talking now, they each waved and smiled, then resumed their conversation as I walked by. I couldn’t make out a single word, but I had no doubt what they were discussing.
And then I understood. Today would be the day I'd help create a way of interacting with others, of living in this world. A new etiquette, as we walked this familiar but surreal new path.
Twenty years ago my husband and I watched a television show together and somehow just never stopped. That’s how we’ve managed to enjoy all 40 seasons of Survivor.
Near the end of each episode, in case you haven’t been watching, I’ll tell you that Jeff, the host, often mentions that as long as a contestant’s torch is lit, they are in the game, because “fire is life”. When he says this, I find myself thinking, “Actually, Jeff, breath is life”. Because, it is.
Through years of learning anatomy and physiology, administering oxygen, performing CPR and assisting anesthesiologists to intubate patients, I’ve regarded breath, the presence of breath, the lack of breath, the struggle for breath and the ease of breath, as a central aspect of life.
How perfect is it that I love the practice of yoga, which honors and uses breath to guide movement and build strength, balance and relaxation?
Every practitioner comes to yoga from a different place, with a unique set of physical and emotional challenges. They could be looking for respite from a trying situation, trying to improve their health, or simply hoping to stretch out a kinked back muscle. Some are looking for the feeling of unity that comes from practicing yoga in a group.
In yoga, we try to make the mat, or chair, a safe space, where we can be free to perform our asanas, or poses, in the best way for each of us, with no judgement from others.
When I teach yoga, we start by connecting with our breath. Inhaling, allowing the breath to start in the belly and fill the torso, then exhaling completely, then repeating the process.The inhalation, ideally 3-5 seconds long, is followed by an exhalation, which we strive to make almost twice as long.
Inhaling and exhaling through the nose requires a bit more effort and leads to a greater workout for our muscles of respiration, but I assure my yogis that any comfortable breath of any length and type is beneficial.
Sometimes we move through guided breaths in which I ask participants to pause, then resume, an inhale and exhale. Sometimes we try for three brief inhales or exhales to completely fill or empty the lungs. Or, it’s nadi shodhana pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, which can lower blood pressure and increase relaxation.
In my chair yoga classes we occasionally perform laughter yoga, taking very deep breaths and laughing them out. I make faces, tell corny jokes and try to coax yogis into letting their fake laughter become real.
After guided breaths, we go on to movement with breath, moving arms, legs or torso into a pose with an inhale, for example, and releasing a pose with an exhale, always moving within the degree of space and flexibility available to each of us.
In poses that require balance, breath becomes even more vital. Holding breath while attempting a balance pose is counter-productive and can cause distress; using breath while balancing increases the chance of success.
At the end of each yoga class, we perform savasana, or corpse pose, calling on our breath to deepen and slow. During savasana, I encourage inhaling a feeling of relaxation and exhaling that relaxation to every area of the body.
When class is over and we leave the mat or chair, I want each participant to feel like a survivor, having met the challenges of their practice to the best of their ability, relaxation and a feeling of strength gently pulsing through their bodies with every breath they take.
There have been lots of changes since I worked in the operating room, but I’m pretty sure one thing hasn’t changed.
There is a major mission for every surgical procedure, and it’s achieving a safe and positive outcome for every surgical patient.
A diverse group made up of surgeons and anesthesiologists, nurses, surgical technicians, nursing assistants and housekeeping aides are responsible for meeting that goal. It was my good fortune to work with talented people in every role.
The surgeon will work closely with the surgical technician for the next few hours, so as they are scrubbing their hands before a procedure, he might strike up a friendly conversation. Maybe he’ll tell her about his tropical vacation, or mention the newly acquired Rolex he has tied to the drawstring of his surgical scrub pants. Both the vacation and the Rolex, which costs more than her annual salary, are out of reach for the technician.
Later, during the procedure, the technician tactfully mentions something unusual she notices about the patient’s anatomy, preventing the surgeon from making a horrendous mistake.
Mission accomplished. We all move on.
A patient is softly crying as she goes under anesthesia, apologizing to the surgeon, to whom she has asked a question that he had already answered. He rebukes her for asking the question again.
After working with this excellent surgeon for many years, I recognize his bad moods. Later, in private, I call him out for his treatment of his patient. His response is to ban me from working with him. This lasts less than a day, since we have to work together later that evening on an emergency case. We make our peace, and move on.
Scrubbed in to a long orthopedic procedure, a surgeon stops briefly and asks everyone to gently put down what they are holding (in my case, a very large and heavy leg). We breathe and stretch out limbs and move shoulders and necks, and then we all go back to our places and begin again. I will always remember that surgeon as one of the kindest persons on earth.
While a procedure I’m responsible for is ending, another nurse comes in to give me a break between cases. I leave, but while my patient is being moved from the operating table, she narrowly escapes injury when a quick-thinking housekeeping aide who is scrubbing the floor notices and then safely locks the cart she is being moved to.
I find out and thank the aide profusely. Just doing my job, he says.
Mission accomplished. We move on.
She stayed in the kitchen during our visit, as close to the entrance of the living room as she could be and still, technically, be on the kitchen floor. She knew her boundaries, and she may have even known she was subject to removal for any infraction.
Huge eyes fixed on me in what I would come to know was a border collie stare, black and white with classic markings, she was a smart and beautiful dog.
Our friends’ son adopted her from a shelter but could no longer provide a home. She was staying with his parents while he tried to find someone who would take her, and this reprieve was strictly limited.
A possible adoption had fallen through when she needed emergency treatment a day after being spayed, and her next stop, when time ran out at this house, would be the shelter where she had already served time.
Eventually, I found myself sitting nearby, petting her while she sighed quietly but ecstatically at my touch.
I was smitten. My husband was skeptical. I had never taken care of a dog, but, despite his misgivings, our relationship with Eddie began.
It was not so smooth at first. I was unprepared for so many things.
Eddie never begged, but wanted to be included in every snack and meal, watching each bite and looking at us beseechingly, making me incredibly uncomfortable. Although she obediently stayed off furniture, there was more dog hair around than I ever expected. Wet, muddy paws had to be wiped off several times a day, and walks, during a cold and rainy November, were not the pleasant excursions I had anticipated. Border collies love to run, and although she was a medium-sized dog of 50-pounds, I was almost pulled off my feet several times.
After just a few days I began to wonder if dog adoption was for us, and by us I meant me. My husband suggested we look into alternate arrangements before we got “attached” to Eddie. A friend was looking for a companion for her dog, Clancy, so we got the dogs together.
My friend and her dog loved Eddie, so everything turned out great. Eddie had a loving, new home, Clancy had a best friend, and I vacuumed dog hair for the very last time.
My husband and I were oddly subdued, you could even say sad, the night Eddie left with my friend. Was it possible we had already become “attached”?
When I checked a day later, my friend said Eddie was doing well and adjusting. Of course she was adjusting, I thought.
Adopted as a puppy from a shelter, back to the shelter, almost adopted, back to the hospital, on probation at a temporary home and then our home, which had proven to be as temporary as the rest. So far her whole life had been one big adjustment.
I went to get her, to bring her home, and my dear friend, who is still my friend, understood.
Eddie was with us until the day we took her to the vet for the last time, fifteen years later.
During her long life, she was a very good dog. We went to dog training, mostly to train me. We shared snacks, enjoyed games of fetch and long walks along the river. I stopped worrying so much about dog hair. For years we spelled out words like “walk” and “park” in front of her.
When the three of us were together, she kept her eyes reassuringly on my husband and me, watching out for us, her pack.
When Eddie left that final time, we adjusted. But still, we miss her, little Eddie, our good dog.