Life In The Emergency Room

My Dad used to tell me a story that I think of often in my work.

It goes like this:

A young surgeon had just started his residency at a prestigious teaching hospital. He was paired with an older surgeon who had been there for a very long time who would, in the coming months, train him to perfect his craft.

A patient arrived at the ER during the young doctor’s first shift. She was bleeding profusely out of a deep laceration in her neck and was immediately wheeled into the OR.

The young surgeon and the older surgeon scrubbed up and hurried in to operate on the patient.

The older surgeon turned to the young surgeon and said, “She’s lacerated a major artery. Remove the damaged portion, suture the artery back together, and close the wound.”

The young surgeon nervously asked, “How much time does she have?”

The older surgeon responded, “She only has about 40 seconds, so slow down, take your time, and do the job right. She’ll die if you hurry.”

I find that the most difficult thing in my work as a pastor, advisor, and one who deeply cares about the wellbeing of people is being able to separate what is primary from what is tertiary.

There are always so many in my work who need my time and attention, and the management of that often feels like triage.

This may also be the case for you if you are in any type of field that requires you to work with the physical, emotional, or spiritual needs of others. You may be a counselor, a teacher, or a therapist. You may be a nurse, a doctor, or someone’s primary care giver. Maybe you are a stay-at-home parent. The pressure of triage is always there for those of us who do “people work.”

It feels like triage because... well... it is.

You may, as I often do, leave your place of work at the end of a very long day feeling guilty. Your inner dialogue whispers to you in icy tones, “You could have fit in one more appointment! That person is in serious pain! How can you just walk away from them? You are so selfish!”

Empathy is a powerful thing. It has the ability to listen, respond, and heal. But empathy can also be our undoing if we forget to be empathic toward ourselves.

At some point we have to stop, acknowledge that we are giving too much, doing too much, and trying to fix the world overnight. And you know what? We never will. In fact, the world will still need fixing when we take our final breath. We will leave the world just as we arrived in it— a place where there is always more work to be done.

Accepting this as a reality can be cathartic. We need to discipline ourselves to think this way, not as an excuse for laziness, but because we are such a driven people, and we don’t know how to “turn it off” when we need to.

It’s okay to let some things go until tomorrow, next week, or even next month. It may be a task. It may be a person. It may be a project. These things will always be shouting at us to act now, to work harder, and to give even more of ourselves than we have to give. But in truth, it’s going to be okay letting many of those things sit in the waiting room a little longer until we are available and able.

Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “It’s a great time to be alive. The world is falling apart.”

And it is. So slow down, take your time, and do the work well. The rest of it will still be there to greet you when you return.


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