Serving Each Other

I had plans to talk about the Hero’s Journey—I even had references.

The Universe had other plans.

Impatience was very busy with me this week.

*****

I didn’t even hear my seven-year-old son Charlie scream. All I heard was the white-hot noise of what sounded like a dying hyena coming from the monkey bars. Immediately, I knew his arm was broken. I was overcome with fear and could feel the panic coming—I didn’t have a car, his health card or an ally. It was just me and my son in his excruciating pain.

I saw a mother I knew and called out to her. She took my older son home with her and my little Charlie and I made our way into an Uber where our 20-year-old driver will never be the same.

I am happy to report that after orthopaedic surgery, Charlie now has a cast full of colourful autographs and a smile on his face after his big brother gave him a hug and told him he was brave.

And, with great sadness, I am also reminded that those of us who choose a profession of care and service are often unconsciously just going through the motions. We can be just as unconscious as the systems we work for. I believe we are seeing the physical manifestation of this unconsciousness in the increasing need for new signs like this in our children’s hospitals:

I spoke with a nurse and asked for her perspective on what was happening, the need for the sign and the hostile energy in the room. She blinked at me and said that it was about lack of resources. I shook my head. I am impatient with this answer.

I worked on inpatient, outpatient and crisis units far before COVID and we gave the same answers then to explain unconscious staff and systems. At the core, it is not a resource issue. It is a human issue and a paradigm issue. Now, more than ever, we need to wake up and take responsibility for healing and restoring ourselves so we can serve each other, especially those of us who chose a profession of service and care.

I thanked the nurse and sat down. Taking deep breaths, I asked Impatience to unblend from me so I could hear what it had to say. It brought up a memory from several years ago, the start of my professional awakening.

*****

I was a social worker on a crisis unit and the patient was a man in his 40s, diagnosed with everything under the sun. He had been using mental health emergency rooms for a decade, looking for help when his shadows and demons tormented him. He was a tall and elegant man, an entrepreneur who had worked hard to overcome an unimaginable life experience in childhood and adolescence. When these unprocessed traumas came for him, he feared for himself and his family and went to Emergency Rooms, having exhausted therapy groups and treatment.

As I read over his chart, I could see the courage and incredible resilience of this man. But when I listened to the staff go over his chart, my Impatience partnered with outrage. They didn’t use his name. They didn’t even read the words in his chart. Instead, they hastily pushed his file to me for discharge.

To them he was taking up space. There were no more medications to try and he had done all the manualized groups and worksheets we could offer. There were no more resources. I have worked on teams with psychologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists, recreational therapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, art therapists and endless admin staff. Yet, I always hear we have no resources.

I didn’t ask questions. I accepted the answer. Systems are complex, resources scarce. But that day, with this man, Impatience woke me up. It said to me, of course there are no beds; of course staff are apathetic, but it’s not because we don’t have resources, it’s because we are pouring our resources like water into the sand.

I knew this man did not need more coping skills, this man needed EMDR. He needed IFS. He needed relational-somatic work—he needed healing, but we didn’t do that in the system and there was nowhere to send him to heal. So that day, all I could offer him was respect and kindness. I was not going to sleepwalk and give lazy answers when sending him away.

I told him we had nothing for him, not because of him, but because of us. I gave him the same handouts he was given last time. I looked him in the eye. I lowered the tone of my voice and apologized for not being able to deliver what he deserved. He lowered his head and gave me a small smile. He thanked me for being kind and said that he knew there was nothing for him but that my kindness helped. He walked away and then turned and said, “You’re one of us.”

I cried.

And I woke up. I hope wherever he is, someone is being kind. I hope he found his way to the healing modalities that I now advocate for.

It is my belief that the parents and kids at the hospital with me and Charlie that night would have accepted few answers to impossible questions and painfully long wait times if we felt like we were being seen and respected. As I witnessed the scene, I could see how the staff with healthy nervous systems and open hearts did this. They spoke to scared and angry parents with low voices, gentle squeezes on the shoulder, a smile in their eyes. I saw there was no escalation or abuse when patients were approached in this way.

I also heard the complaints from staff behind the desk and the sharp, snappy comments to parents who were asking questions, accompanied by irritated body language at the requests. When I saw this, I understood the hostility and the reason for the new signage at one of the best hospitals in the world.

Impatience woke me up to reject lazy answers and put me on a path to heal and restore my own nervous system so that I can be awake to participate in creating a world where we don’t need signs to remind us not to abuse each other.

Let’s pour ourselves, our most valuable resource, into lowering the tone of our voices, calming our bodies and seeing each other. Impatience wants us to wake up.

Take what works, leave the rest.

-Natasha Senra-Pereira

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