It all started because I was looking up at the stars on my 5am run. Their beauty and timelessness, and my body moving easily through the dark, silent morning, made me feel insignificant yet connected to all that is. Suddenly pavement hit me in the face and pain erupted in my knee. In hindsight I thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quote, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Thanks to a small pothole, I went from experiencing a spiritual connection to being painfully aware that I was a mere mortal in a human body.
I thought this story would end with my skinned and bruised knee healing and a return to full activity. In fact, after running four miles pain free five weeks later, it seemed this was the case. Two hours after my run that day, my knee began swelling and became hot and painful. Urgent Care diagnosed infection. Long story short, I failed 3 days of outpatient antibiotic treatment and on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving was admitted to the hospital. I was discharged after 5 days of IV antibiotic therapy and a minor surgery to drain my knee.
I’m aware that my experience was insignificant compared to others’, but for someone who hadn’t been to the hospital since a tonsillectomy at the age of 4, it was a significant event to me. I tried my best to be a non-judgmental observer, both of my own reactions to a less then optimal Thanksgiving environment, and to what was happening around me. This worked most of the time. But alone at night, my room bathed in the glow from the infusion pump, and unable to move my left leg because of swelling or my right arm because of the IV, I cried. What if the infection goes into my bones or blood? What if I can’t run or paddle again? What will happen to my business if I can’t work for a while? Why can’t I just go home with my husband and dog and have Thanksgiving?
After giving myself permission to have a small pity party, I was able to go to sleep. In the mornings I returned to observer mode and was alert for the lessons to be gained from this experience. Some were immediately evident, and some have come to light as I processed my hospital stay. Besides being discharged on the mend, with no long term impacts, I also left the hospital with these insights:
1. The coping skills I teach my clients actually work. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for many years and found this to be invaluable in coping with my illness and hospitalization. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” So, being fully present in a hospital room with a swollen leg doesn’t sound like much fun, but it did work. I promise. I focused on the nonjudgmental part and monitored my self talk. I tried not to say this is horrible, why is this happening, etc but would say instead, without judgement, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m a healthy person in a hospital”. The phrase, “isn’t this interesting” opened the door to observation rather then suffering about why these things were happening.
Mindfulness pulled me into the moment when I used a newer coping skill, coloring. Exercise and nature are usually my go to strategies, but besides looking out the window and hobbling down the hall, they were not as helpful here. I found great solace in coloring while listening to music. In these moments my mind was focused on the lyrics of a favorite song and what color I would use next and I wasn’t able to worry, or lament that I wasn’t out paddle boarding. My focus was on something I had control of in that moment.
Being mindful also allowed me to practice gratitude and notice the blessings despite the circumstances; my wonderful husband with a smoothy from Panera, the laughter of my nurse’s aide, the sunset behind Walgreens drug store. Having a needle stuck in my arm at 3am was not pleasant, but being gently awoken by my phlebotomist humming was. Where we put our attention makes all the difference and grace is available in every moment if we look for it. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
2. Small gestures of kindness matter immensely. During my hospital stay I was on the receiving end of care, not where I’m comfortable. I don’t even like asking my husband to help put my paddle board on the car, but being in pain and scared made me receptive to the help of others. Several times during my stay I was moved to tears by the kindness and compassion that my loved ones and the hospital staff showed me. I experienced the impact a kind word, text message, authentic smile or simple gesture like filling my water bottle had. These small acts of kindness were as healing to me as the vancomycin and surgery, and this was an epiphany.
As a therapist I’m familiar with the research on the power of compassion, but I’d always minimized my impact on others, uncertain that I could make a difference. Now I know otherwise. I will continue to be mindful of my interactions with my clients and look for more opportunities to reach out to others in my personal life. I will not discount the impact my words, presence or physical help has on others. I’ve experienced first hand that the exchange of love and compassion is powerful, and I believe if this is done more regularly, it can change the world. It definitely changed mine. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
3. I am not invincible. My body can get injured and sick no matter how well I take care of it. I believed, or wanted to believe, that regular exercise, a vegan diet, adequate sleep, managing my stress and supportive relationships would protect by body. I thought I was invulnerable, so why couldn't I fight off an infection? The best answer the medical staff could give was, “this just happens sometimes.” My rational brain knew this was true because I’d witnessed it in my personal and professional lives, seemingly healthy people who have a sudden brain hemorrhage, or an accident that leaves them paralyzed or cancer that takes their life way to early. But not me, I’m different.
But I’m not.
Lying in a hospital bed, my leg inflated to twice it’s normal size and the red tendrils of infection creeping north and south of my knee, it was obvious I’m not invincible. It was also the first time that I understood, not just with my mind, but with my body and spirit that I am going to die. One day my body will fail and I won’t recover, and like the bear, the field mouse, the eagle and the trees, my body will die and return to the earth. But that is not the end. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I wouldn’t have asked for a five day hospital stay over Thanksgiving but I’m grateful for the wisdom I gained from the experience. I knew before this that mindfulness is a heathy coping skill, that compassion is good and that I am going to die. But now, I understand these things not just with my intellect, but with my heart, spirit and body.
Soon I will be back to my 5am runs. Will I still look up at the stars? Yes. Will I fall again? Probably. But that is the nature of life. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”