Forgive me dear sisters if the following dwells a little too much in the heart and not enough in the head. But I’ve been thinking lately about the steps we take in this world and how all too often we live less in the moment and more in a future that may or may not be.
Let me explain.
10 days ago I did the Honolulu Marathon. Yes, insert cheer here.
This was my fourth marathon to be exact but I am not one to keep score. Indeed however, it was the first marathon that I have ever WALKED. Yes, my girlfriends, I’ve ran marathons before. Indeed I RAN the Honolulu Marathon last year. But this year, I walked it…. All 42.2km of it.
Am I injured you ask? Did I have a bad race? No, none of the above. I am injury free and the race was indeed glorious.
You see 18 months ago I started a walking group for my patients. Every Tuesday and Thursday we meet in my office after work and we walk the seawall in West Vancouver. Rain or shine we huddle up and soldier on. At first it began as a means for people to meet with their doctor and ask any question they wanted. They would come for the “doc talk” and stay for the walk so to speak. But over the year and a half it has grown into a community of its own.
Each night these brave souls come one and come all with or without me
Ah, what can I say about my Seaside Walkers?
They have become a group in and unto themselves. For the last 18 months we have seen members come and go. We have many faithful each night and many a “drop in”. But overall- these people are a community where fitness is king and the rest of the world’s troubles fall away if only for an hour.
This is a group of people who have come together by chance and are now bonded together by a common sense of friendship and a pursuit for better health.
I know you think I am being a romantic about all this- but they really are remarkable.
I’ve learned a lot in my almost 20 years in medicine. Yes, Its been almost 2 decades since I stepped foot into my first medical school class (and thanks to my fabulous dermatologist – it only seems like 1 decade). I’ve learned a lot in that time- about the science of the human body in sickness and in health. I’ve learned about the bravery of the human spirit and the importance of maintaining one’s own connection to the human condition.
Some may say that walking with patients is not very “doctorly”. I could not disagree more. Truth be told, when it first began I was a bit unsettled. I was unsure if I could maintain a sense of professionalism while “out and about” on a seawall and not in an office.
But indeed my fears fell away as the weeks went on and I watched my walkers, those brave and fabulous souls grow stronger and faster before my eyes.
Truth be told- nothing makes me feel MORE effective as a physician than those moments on the sea wall.
That is until I crossed a finish line with a patient.
She indeed gave me permission to share a bit of our adventure as it went down, two Sundays ago on a perfect day in Honolulu.
The weather was a glorious 28 degrees celcius. We met in the lobby of the hotel at 4am, I was half asleep and drinking a coffee she was excited and a bit nervous.
My patient’s name is Elizabeth (no I’m not using her real name, duh) and she is a superhero. Now 70 pounds lighter since the day I met her two years ago, she has trained for this moment for the last 10 months. She has walked countless hours and given up months worth of Sundays all in pursuit of this goal. She has logged anywhere between 30 km/week to 70km per week all in pursuit of a dream.
And on Sunday, December 8, 2013, the dream became a reality. No matter that she was nervous. I knew she would be glorious.
She wonders in the lobby if she has what it takes. Will all that she has trained and prepared for be enough? Will the heat get the best of her? Will she finish strong?
I don’t let a doubt enter my mind. Not because it is 4 am and my coffee has not kicked in but because I have seen what determination and resilience looks like and it bears an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth.
We head towards the start line and find our place among the 30,000 people. The energy is amazing and the gun goes off. Our race has begun. Not a race against time- but a race of the human spirit.
We start out strong and she is a beast. We are making amazing time. We had hoped to finish at 8 hours and I check my watch after the first 10km to find that we are on track for 7:30. Elizabeth takes the hills like they are flat land. I am having to pick up my pace to keep up with her.
I give instructions at each water station on how much water and Gatorade to drink and she follows like a trouper. This is a woman on a mission with a quiet grace in a quest for glory.
The miles fall away as do the hours.
We talk about the weather, our stay thus far. I ask periodically how she is feeling asking her to assign a number between 1 and 10 as to how "full is the tank"; how much energy she has. we check in from time to time but mostly we just walk. I play my music on my playlist on little speakers to motivate her and move her on.
At 35km she shows signs of wear. There is fatigue in her step but determination on her face. When I ask her how she is, she smiles and tell me “tired, I want this over. Let’s go”.
We round out 41km as we make our way into Kapaioloni Park. The finish line is now one long stretch of road ahead- and we can see it in the distance.
We begin the 900 metres or so long walk home and I start to cry. Yes, me.
And then as if on cue, Elizabeth turns to me and says,
“Oh get it together Zentner, Let’s go.”
And so we do. As we walk across the finish line I grab my patients hand and raise it in triumph. They announce her name and I look at my watch 8:03:23. We are just 3 minutes off our goal time. Considering we stopped to pee twice, (Too much information?) that’s pretty much a goal met.
I lead my weary soldier past the finish line where I place a finishers medal around her neck. She gives me a hug and begins to cry.
I have spent many nights sitting at patients’ bedsides in hospitals across this country. I have slept in ICU’s more nights than I can count worried for the safety of my patients. I have spoken the best and the worst news a person can say to another. I have relieved pain and caused it. I have uttered thing to patients that could make their day or ruin their lives.
I am very aware at how fortunate I am do be THIS close to the human experience every day.
I often worry about how my patients will do in the future. I wonder about the ones who have made such amazing changes in their own lives; those who have lost weight, found fitness, or fought a disease and won. How will their futures play out? Will they continue to be healthy? Will all the effort be for not?
On that glorious Sunday in December, I placed a medal around a very brave lady’s neck and the worry for the future was banished. For in that moment I was the best doctor I could be. In those 8 hours I learned that sometimes in life, as in medicine, it is indeed about THIS moment, right hear and right now.
We can not fix everything in this world. There are sometimes when the disease is too great and the will is just not willing. I think I’m a pretty good doctor, most days. I try my best, I really do care more than enough. I hope beyond all things that I don’t do any harm and that the benefit of everything will outweigh the risk; the good outweigh the bad.
But there is no better day than the one where as a doctor a patient inspires you with their grace and their courage; Whether it’s a bedside or a finish line.
Last week I stepped out of the doctor’s office and onto a marathon course to escort a patient across 42.2km to glory.
For in those hours I learned that medicine comes in all forms and life is not about the breaths you take…. It’s how you breathe.