Last summer, my daughter and I rode a crowded subway in New York City. I wondered about the people packed onto the subway with me. Where do they live? What do they do for work? Are they happy? Who are the people in their lives? I assumed everyone contemplated the lives of people with whom they shared public transportation, but my daughter’s skeptical facial expression gave me doubt.
I’ve always been curious about other people. Passing by houses, I imagine who the families inside are. What’s their story? How did they land there? When I travel, I poke around neighborhoods trying to catch a glimpse of locals’ lives.
As a PA, I speculated about patients’ lives a lot. Without knowing very much about our patients, I had to make judgments about their capabilities. Will they be able to take the medication as I’m directing? Will they be able to get to a pharmacy? Do they understand when they need to be seen again? If I could have one super power, I wanted it to be the ability to feel patients’ symptoms (very briefly) so I could understand what they were experiencing. I think this curiosity—and this desire for connection—is why I liked medicine and why I’m drawn to teaching. Practicing medicine is teaching—well over half of what we do is educate those we treat as well as those with whom we work.
Before moving to Steamboat, I had the incredible opportunity to work with a good friend. Dr. Chris Colwell was the head of Denver Health Emergency Department. One evening while attending a soup kitchen just blocks from Denver Health, he recognized the need for a free medical clinic for the homeless. His goal was to triage and provide care for those who were getting lost in the system but didn’t need to be in the emergency department.
It wasn’t long before we were seeing more than 50 patients in two hours. The success of Dr. Colwell’s clinic wasn’t innovative technology, advanced equipment, or potent medication. In fact, most medication we offered was over the counter. The success of the clinic was based on the connections we made and the care we provided. For once, our patients had someone to check in with each week. We knew their names and where they lived or camped. We cared deeply about their physical and mental health. We laughed and joked together. We grieved together when some patients never returned. We saw our patients and they felt seen. To be seen is so important in this world.
As soon as face masks were recommended or required for us to wear in March, I noticed people looking past each other. Maybe in part it was our adaptation to the new social distancing, but we started not seeing other people—even when we were out. Often times, eye contact was avoided. If eye contact was made, I sensed fear behind it. And of course, wearing a mask makes some of us feel less conspicuous or more anonymous. Our personal dynamics changed dramatically.
Not being seen has so many social ramifications that are not beneficial for society. I’ve noticed anger and aggression rearing up in many places but especially on social media where inherently we are not seen. In isolation, people can hide behind a computer screen, appear as a cursor, and leave hurtful comments with no real time or direct consequence. Without seeing others and without being seen, are we different people?
As we navigate this pandemic and the waves, resurgences, and phases of new normal, we really need to see each other again. We need to be open, curious, and respectful of each other. We need to step away from the defensive and over-protective; we need to nurture connection to other humans.
The focus of my classes the past few weeks has been on being that one—that one person who forgives, who looks past insults, who maneuvers the awkward situation and finds the authentic individual behind the overwhelming negativity and stark division. Be that one—that one person who extends kindness to all (starting with the self!). Can we see people, make eye contact, smile behind our masks, and say hello? Can we remember that we’re all connected? Can we stay curious about each other so we can keep learning, experiencing, and moving forward together? Can we imagine what others are feeling? Can we care what it’s like to be the person just six feet away?
In light and love,