Here is my column in this week’s Greenville News. Enjoy! (And call your grandparents…they love you.)
A common theme in the emergency department is this one: ‘Doc, I freaked out and came straight to the ER!’ I wish I knew how many times someone has said something similar to me. ‘The baby had a fever so I freaked out.’ ‘I fell and got a big bruise and I was afraid I had a blood clot so I freaked out.’ ‘I saw a spider on my leg and I freaked out so here I am!’
I’ve wondered about this for a while now. I have a theory. I believe that some of the freaking out that leads people to the ER results from the absence of sufficient grandmothers and grandfathers. It isn’t that those dear folks aren’t out there doing their best. It’s that families are often mobile or broken, disconnected from all roots. So the collective calm and wisdom of the ages, often found in grandparents, is often difficult to obtain.
I remember any number of my childhood injuries consoled, bandaged and painted with Merthiolate by my grandmothers. What I don’t remember is anyone freaking out. Not even when I nearly impaled my foot on a makeshift spear whittled from a broom handle.
In addition to ‘the grandparent’ issue, we really don’t do a good job of teaching young people about sickness, injury or even health outside of birth-control; even though life involves far more than reproduction.
The medical world of freaking out, however, is a microcosm of a greater problem. We seem to be a nation that ‘freaks out.’ We freak out over weather, politics, culture, relationships, celebrities and whether or not our own social media posts or pictures are getting enough traction. We freak out when life is difficult and we freak out when we’re bored because life is so good. And when we freak out, we go looking for someone to keep us calm, cover our wounds and give us hope.
Maybe we freak out simply because we watch too much television, where every medical event is a screaming, chaotic blood-fest. Or it could be that we spend too much time on the Internet, where every insect bite is deadly and every bit of swelling is (of course) the sure-path to cancer. Sometimes we freak out because of what we put in our minds. A patient once told me, in tears, that he thought about death all day. It turns out his television viewing exclusively involved shows about murder.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s more than being educated (by school or grandma) about all the the things which should make us ‘freak out’ or not. Maybe it’s a matter of how to deal with anxiety and uncertainty in general. I have observed over the years that children from chaotic home-lives are much more anxious when we have to stitch their wounds, start IV’s, give them injections or any other stressful, frightening procedure. Those who come from homes filled with consistency and calm can often be managed with simple reassurance. It could be that calm was the most important salve applied by grandmothers.
I believe in preparing for crises. I became a physician in large part because I didn’t want to be powerless in the face of medical emergencies. I say we teach young people as much as we can to prepare them for life’s troubles, whether they involve open wounds or flat tires. Knowledge is power, as they say.
But I believe we can help the ‘freak out’ crisis with two other things. The first is by keeping families connected and involved, so that the young can see how adults handle stress. It’s important to model this for our kids, well into their 20s.
The second, however, is a little harder. I believe that everyone needs a belief system to bear them through hard times. As modern, technological and scientific as we have become, we have yet to escape our deep need for hope and meaning, for transcendence in the face of trouble. And yep, I’ll say it; for a God who will calm the storm or calm us in the storm and be waiting on the other side of it, in this life or the next.
Life is hard and scary. But there’s way too much freaking out. And with the right application of grandma, knowledge and God above, maybe we can spend 2016 with just a little less freaking out and a little more hope.