Welcome, readers, to my new column in the Daily Yonder! It will concern rural emergency medicine and things I see through that particular lens. Have a great day and feel free to share liberally! I’m honored by the Daily Yonder to be included on their team, dedicated to all things rural.
Call me Dr. Doolittle…
Once upon a time, a loving couple moved from the cold, bleak land of Indiana to South Carolina and bought a house in the woods. It was a lovely first home, and they enjoyed all their time in the house. While they were there, they learned about the beauty of nature; the birds, the raccoons, the deer; the ice storms that shattered trees, the flash floods, the brush fires, the stray dogs trapped in the creek, the giant hornets nests in the woods. It was beautiful all around. Nature is awesome!
Then, after they had brought four amazing children into the world, they said to one another: ‘What the heck! Let’s move further into the wilderness!’ And they had someone build them a house of logs, high on a hill near the state forest. While it was being built, they discovered rattlesnakes. Which are natures wonderful creatures. And soon after it was built and they moved in, they learned about wild hogs. Just one more amazing thing in the yard.
In time, the family learned all about the veritable Noah’s Ark that their home had become. Having grown up without scorpions (how poor life was!), the family learned to shake out shoes and watch where they stepped. Inside the house as well as outside. Gradually, centipedes stopped in. ‘Hello human family, we’re God’s creatures too! And we sting like everything else! Welcome!’ By now the family was not only amazed but mildly annoyed. They learned the centipedes are much harder to kill than scorpions. They felt sad doing it. The first time.
A charming family of giant rats lived under the porch. Such a cute family! And they set the dogs on them, who went to work with canine glee. The dogs later made peace with most of the forest creatures and started to completely ignore them.
One magnificent, exciting year, the family saw a cute little lady-bug (or what they thought was a lady-bug) in the kitchen. And the next day they woke to find, oh, about ten-bajillion of them hanging out all around the house and in the house and in their food and bathroom and on the windows and drapes. Some in the family, it turns out, were allergic to them and wheezed and developed rashes. But oh they were so cute. The family sprayed a chemical around the doors and windows that, years later, still seems to kill the creatures and probably cause cancer.
The house in summer was all abuzz with wonderful things. Carpenter bees slowly, with great dedication, began to bore holes all over the wooden beams of the big log house. The children made great sport of swatting carpenter bees with badminton rackets. It didn’t really help, but a dead bug is, well, you know. Eventually it is believed that the house, like a great building of brittle Swiss cheese, will collapse and kill everyone. Except the bugs, that is! Isn’t that wonderful? Nature…who knew?
Later, various wasps began to engineer amazing nests on the log house; which then developed into entire wasp civilizations. The wasps loved the house, and the family, so much that sometimes they went to bed with them and took showers with them! Stinging is like hugging to wasps. Except it really isn’t. The people engaged in campaigns to kill all the wasps, and enrich pesticide companies. The wasps are silly and always come back. The wasps live in the attic above the bedrooms too. We’re all a family.
Then stink-bugs came, and what a joy! They sing their happy, buzzing sounds all day and night, inside and out, and land in cooking food and brewing tea and onto the hair of unhappy females in the house. And when smushed, they smell terrible! What fascinating little nightmares. The family was told that stinkbugs prey on ladybugs. Isn’t that just a kick in the pants?
Lately, above the bedrooms, there have been noises. Adorable, furry bats have appeared in the big log house on the hill. Flying around inside the house, dropping onto the table. What incredible creatures! They are, apparently, rooming with flying squirrels. Will either of them eat the stink bugs?
The family still loves nature. Maybe, part of loving God’s critters is being in a constant struggle with them. At least then you learn about them in person, not from some sterile display or chapter in a book.
Maybe, just maybe, an apartment in the city would be nice sometimes. Because the creatures, so far, are winning.
These days, I work most of my shifts about 45 minutes from my ‘house on the hill.’ At one of those jobs, the day shift starts at 06:30. Which means I’m rising from my bed at 04:30 in order to get on the road in time. I’ve started waking up at four, spontaneously, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I lay out my clothes the night before, so as not to awake my darling wife in her sleep. Sometimes I am able slip out without her knowledge. Others she wakes to kiss me goodbye. Then I go downstairs and put together some lunch, get the backpack and make my way out the door. I know that my wife and children are safe upstairs, as I lock the door behind me.
The door creeks a little, or did until my son Elijah oiled it. (One always wonders why a teenage boy oils a front door…) Occasionally I lock it as I realize I left my keys inside, and poor, tired Jan opens the door for me patiently. On the front porch, by the soft yellow of porch-light or the shock of flashlight, I step over dogs freshly awakened from sleep, who look at me with gentle annoyance. The sharp-eyed cats sleep in more secret places, so are seldom seen in the morning. Other dogs (we have five), sleep on the gravel drive in the summer and seem confused as to how to react when my Tundra rolls towards them, slowly, and I roll down the window. ‘Get up, you silly dog!’ Heads and tails down they amble away.
Up the long drive and down the road, I am suddenly all but alone on the two lane roads that lead me to Tiny Memorial Hospital. Despite the early hour, I am ‘awake, alert and oriented.’ The sky is dark, and in winter stars shine down when clouds don’t lay low against the earth. I scan the roadside for deer, their eyes reflecting the truck’s headlamps. Opossums sometimes shuffle across, along with squirrels and rabbits. (One day I saw a big, black bear on a hill by the road. He ran away as I stopped for a photo.)
I drive through forests, past sleeping houses and across a dark, still lake where sometimes, the light from a bass-boat shines across the emptiness where someone has fished all night…or started very early. Or a campfire on the shore still burns as their line rests untroubled in the water.
It is so early that I drive past gas-stations and convenience stores still dark and locked, the ‘closed’ sign reminding me to keep on moving. The air, even in summer, is cooler and in winter, positively cold. Winter is my favorite, I think, with the heat of the truck turned out, and the chill wind blowing past.
I think as I drive. And I pray. And I listen to the news, a recorded sermon, a pod-cast. Many mornings I turn on an oldies station from the North Carolina mountains; in the loneliness of the drive the music of Sinatra, Johnny Cash and others, make me feel I’ve gone back in time.
I cannot talk on the phone (hands free or otherwise). I pass through places where cell-signals are only a dream, and often even radio reception is poor. Remote areas, mountainous places, lonely and beautiful places defy cell signals and seem to say ‘look around! What else do you need!’ Even at 5 am, I agree.
Eventually I am near, and I find a fast-food joint for the obligatory chicken biscuit and tea, because, well, the South and all. And then I roll into the ER parking lot, lock things up and head to work.
Because this is no urban trauma center, the early morning is sometimes very slow and relaxed. A few patients may be waiting for turnover, but often none. I can sit and think, I can ask about the previous night. I can ease into work. My drive has already prepared me, but it’s nice to have a few minutes peace in the department before the chaos of the day begins. I text Jan. ‘Here safe, love you,’ and she answers. ‘Love you back, have a great day.’
There are those who don’t have to drive long distances. For most of my career it was about 15 minutes to work. And there are those who have long commutes through traffic, and through the waking body of a large city, people and cars just starting to fill its veins and arteries. Sometimes I am jealous. It can be lonely where I am.
But I think I’ll keep it for now. There is a solemnity, a serenity to my mountain and lake commute, with animals heading to bed and people not yet rising, with my own thoughts and prayers to myself.
This is my column in yesterday’s Greenville News. Happy Birthday West Virginia! June 20,1863.
Tomorrow is June 20th, a special day in the hearts of my people; West Virginians. On June 20th, 1863, West Virginia entered the Union in the midst of a bloody struggle for the soul of the young nation. It was, prior to that, the sparsely populated, wilderness-filled backwater of the elegant, beloved Virginia, soul of the South. After June 20th, however, it was…well, a sparsely populated, wilderness-filled backwater all its own. But a free state that rejected slavery!
Those who live in South Carolina are generally well acquainted with my fellow West Virginians. I have a theory that West Virginians share a gene which, at various times of their lives, causes them to have an irresistible urge to drive to South Carolina’s coast. In fact, when the mines close down for two weeks every summer, untold numbers of miners and their families head to Myrtle Beach, which has been affectionately dubbed ‘the coal miner’s Riviera.’ Some of my earliest vacation memories are of the Grand Strand. My wife Jan, a true ‘coal-miner’s daughter’ has similar memories.
If you doubt the connection between SC and WV, I have a vignette: my brother-in-law Dave worked in the WV coal mines as a young man out of high school. His early cell-phone plan included, as local calls, Huntington and Charleston, WV and (you got it!) Myrtle Beach, SC.
I write about this today because West Virginia is in the heart of Appalachia, which stretches from Southern New York all the way to Northern Mississippi (passing through the Upstate of South Carolina). Appalachia is defined as a ‘cultural region,’ and indeed it is.
More to the point, I write this because Appalachia is struggling. Although poverty has improved over the decades, Appalachia as a whole still faces financial woes, much of it made worse by those who are all too anxious to kill coal, but provide no other employment options for those terminated as part of an environmental purge. As if the ‘coal industry’ is only some vast robotic behemoth, and does not represent the hopes and dreams, and often the only financial possibility, for an entire ‘cultural region’ of America.
Appalachia is also struggling with rampant drug addiction and broken by the many funerals, ruined lives and crimes that widespread addiction brings in its wake. From pill-mills dispensing oxycontin to meth labs and imported heroin, the toll in lost lives and lost hope is crushing.
When Jan and I have traveled home over the years, deeper and deeper into Appalachia, up Highway 23 through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky and then home, it’s easy to see a place of magnificent beauty, resilient people and serious, inexpressible hopelessness. I never know if the drug abuse is the cause of the loss of hope, or the result of it. Cart, horse. It’s all tragic.
Sadly enough, America frequently just isn’t interested. Appalachian people are still acceptable sources of scorn for much of urban, coastal America. They’re live in ‘flyover country.’ Trailer-trash, hicks, rednecks. People who ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,’ to quote a well-known political figure. When a culture is endlessly mocked and derided, its people get the message loud and clear. Don’t try. It doesn’t matter.
But this June 20th I’d like to speak for my ancestors, and the forebears of so many, who settled in the Mountains of WV and other portions of Appalachia after leaving the press and stagnation of Europe. I’d like to speak for those who still live there, and who find solace and connection in the ghosts of their ancestors, the starkness of the mountains and valleys, in the life, faith, culture and music of the cities and towns. Like me, they stay there because in Appalachia, the past and the present are difficult but inextricable.
And if nostalgia isn’t enough, let us remember Appalachian people keep the lights (and i-Pads, DVR’s and electric cars) on by mining coal. They also provide timber and produce, work in important industries and share their region for the recreation of any and all. All too many have also shed their blood in America’s many wars, and continue to boldly, proudly ‘stand on the wall’ around the world.
America loves to talk about its multiculturalism. And one of its greatest cultures is firmly entrenched, despite its pains and struggles, in the vast region we call Appalachia. It deserves our respect.
I’m putting together a project on small hospitals. While I’m particularly interested in critical access facilities in rural areas, other small facilities (urban and rural) are welcome. I’ve always contended that big teaching centers get all the ‘love.’ There are television shows and books and movies about the enormous referral hospitals in big cities. But not so much about the little hospital at the end of the road on the mountaintop, or on the windswept coast or in the desert Southwest.
And yet those places have dedicated staff who do great things, save lives, comfort the sick and do most of it on a pretty limited budget and in all kinds of weather.
So if you are interested in being part of this project (I’ll reveal more in time), tell me about your hospital. Where it is, why it matters, its great successes and struggles. If you have anyone I can contact there, please let me know that as well.
I want to hear your stories!
You can respond here or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edwin Leap, MD
Snow, milk and bread; still a mystery
(I resurrected this post from 2009, as our entire region of Upstate, SC is on lockdown from ice and snow. Thank God we have tea and sugar!)
Living in the South for over 21 years, I’ve always been amazed by the general response to snow and ice. In particular, I am constantly fascinated by the grocery store dash for milk and bread. I grew up in West Virginia. Sure, we didn’t have winters like Michigan or Maine, but it was still cold and snowy. Nevertheless, I can’t ever remember my family saying, ‘Run to the store and get milk and bread! The storm’s a comin’!’
This comes to mind today because all around our hill-top home, the forest is an ice covered work of art and the roads are slick highways to death and disability. Being South Carolina, of course, everything is shut down.
But I digress. The point is that I have contemplated this for quite a long time, so I have a few ideas. It may be that there is some secret knowledge that born and bred Southerners possess. Milk and bread may constitute the keys to some Gnostic cultural insight that I’m not privy to knowing. Or, it may be a kind of generally accepted joke. If so, it’s a lucrative one for grocery stores. Whatever it is, I’ve decided that, in honor of winter, I’ll suggest some reasons why we might actually want, or need, milk and bread when ice and snow descend.
1) The most obvious answer is that we can drink the milk or eat whatever cereal we can find in the cabinet. We can make sandwiches out of the bread. And yet, this simplistic explanation it leaves me unsatisfied; hungry for some other answer, so to speak.
2) When the wind is stiff and the house (or camper) poorly insulated, we can mix milk and bread into a paste and caulk the walls for warmth.
3) When mixed into paste, milk and bread could also be used to write HELP, NEED CHEESE PUFFS! (or OXYCONTIN or XANAX) onto the sides of our houses. Unless they’re already white, or too snow covered for the letters to be visible (thus, food coloring).
4)) If a new ice age suddenly descends, we can use the milk and bread to lure animals like squirrels, rabbits, black bears and stray cats onto the porch, then drop cartons of frozen milk onto them, or snare them with nets made of plastic bread bags. We can then make breading to use whilst cooking them. Also applies to gerbils, guinea pigs, hermit crabs and large goldfish. In a pinch, annoying neighbors may suffice.
5) Milk and bread may be combined with sugar to make some sort of winter confection to satisfy our need for something to eat besides milk and bread.
6) Milk and bread can be bartered on the black-market and exchanged for more exciting things like i-Pods and liquor, or more useful things like ammunition and camouflage. Except that everyone else also has milk and bread, so…
7) If one has purchased enough bread, it can be put under the back wheel of a vehicle stuck in the ice and snow to provide traction, so that the driver can venture forth to find… more milk and bread.
8) When the children are bored from being stuck inside for the 4-5 hours that snow actually lasts in the South, we can play games like ‘dunking for bread,’ ‘pin the cap on the carton,’ ‘cover baby sister in milk’ or ‘bread Frisbee.’ And our children can entertain us for hours asking ‘Mama, can we have something else besides milk and bread?’
9) Because we always get milk and bread but always forget dog food, we can mix the milk and bread and give it to the dogs (who will roll their eyes and eat it out of duty, but who will have already torn apart the trash for chicken bones). But if thus conditioned, this will make #4 above much easier.
10) We can burst upon the art world with ‘milk and bread sculpture,’ which is almost as cool as ice sculpture but does not require power tools. (But may, unfortunately, sour before art critics can descend upon our area to review our work for the New Yorker.)
11) We can make hot chocolate and toast until the sun shines again. Unless, oh, you forgot the chocolate, didn’t you? Well, it’s back to milk and bread for you.
12) Milk and bread can be used in some sort of odd, Southern fertility ceremony. It must be true, considering the number of children born 40 weeks after the happy couples stocked up.
13) Milk and bread can be substituted for pseudoephedrine and ether in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Well, not really, but it’s much less dangerous and way more healthy.
14) It gives Southerners something to laugh about that people from other countries, like New York and Miami, don’t understand.
15) Going to the store for milk and bread reminds us of the things we need that are really important! Like sugar and tea-bags, chicken-livers, pop-tarts and Red Box movies to help us through the next 24 hours until everything melts.
If any of these are right, please e-mail me and let me know. I have to get to the bottom of this! And if it turns out to be a carefully planned conspiracy by dairy farmers and bread makers, then bravo, guys, bravo! Capitalism is alive and well.
This is my column in the October Emergency Medicine News. ‘No matter how hot it gets, doctors, be proud of returning to the fire.’
(Who knew that blacksmithing and medicine had so much in common?)
When I want to clear away the chaos and confusion of medicine, I walk down the worn path in our back-yard (followed by children, dogs, cats and deer). At the end of the path is the shop, which the kids and I helped a friend to build for us. We helped set the foundations and nailed the floor; we raised walls and put in roof trusses.
The shop sits in an area that was once a garden, but a soil-poor garden that yielded more blackberries, brambles and hornets’ nests than corn or beans. The best crop of the garden was a treasure trove of arrow-heads and Native-American pottery; what still lies there I can’t imagine, but it is evident to me that someone, some people, camped or lived in what is now my yard a very, very long time ago. They would be surprised to see my shop.
Under the extended roof at the back of the shop is our smithy. Years ago, my son Seth asked if he could learn to blacksmith. He may have been born in the wrong century. He plays the bag-pipes and banjo and black-smiths. (And is addicted to science.) But to condense the narrative, we have. Well, I should say we’ve learned a bit thanks to our gracious teacher George, the man who cannot seem to feel the heat of the hottest fire. We don’t really even rise to the level of his apprentices, but we can build and tend a coal-fire, we can handle a hammer and anvil, we can forge-weld iron, twist iron and curve iron; we can quench the iron and we can do most of it without being burned (very often) by the lemon-yellow and orange colored metal.
When I want to let my mind rest from medicine, I walk down that path and look at the old tools and the old anvil and vise. I look first for wasps and rattlesnakes, of course. But then I just take it in. The old colors, the bits of rust, the ordered disorder of a work-place; gravel on the ground, coal in the corner. It isn’t professional and it isn’t perfect. But it’s beautiful.
Rarely has a hobby captured my mind like this one. And seldom has any activity enabled me to slip the bonds of medicine so readily. From the moment I start the walk, I drift into a different place and time. And when I start the fire, when the coal burns, the green sulfur clouds the air and blows around me, as I turn the crank of the blower that feeds air to the fire, well from that moment I am meditating.
It can be a hot day or a cold day, but cold days are best; cold days when standing by the fire is a comfort; cold days when it’s so hot there that a t-shirt is enough. It can be a sunny day or a rainy day. Rainy days fill our bucket with water from the sky with which to quench hot metal from the earth. It is mystical.
And taking that metal, cutting it, heating it until it is over 2000 degrees, then shaping it from a mundane round or square stick into a wall-hook, a decorative leaf or even into a new tool, well that’s pure joy.
It’s unlike the emergency room. It is single-minded. The interruptions are virtually non-existent; and if they exist, they are laughter and jokes between my sons and me; or gentle arguments about how best to accomplish the task at hand. Or the warning shout, ‘Hot Iron!’ which reminds us to watch lest we be burnt.
There are mistakes, but they are of small consequence. Burnt metal can be cut off and thrown on the ground. Crooked metal can be hammered straight. An item made poorly can remain as a reminder of what not to do next time.
It’s so unlike the emergency room, where mistakes can be life-ending. Where danger lies at every turn and if we shouted every danger we would shout for 8 hours. And yet. There’s the heat and smoke. There’s the risk of injury. And there’s the shaping of something. The transformation of something. Hammer and hot iron and anvil and water; tongs and vise. The change from what was to what is. The rescue of an old piece of scrap, a lawn-mower blade, a piece of re-bar and the gift of watching those things have new life. And the ring of that anvil, made around 1850, that says ‘I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m still here and needed!’
They seem connected to me, those two divergent places. Writers see everything in metaphor and simile. Maybe the heat is metaphor for the pressure and stress of our work in emergency medicine. Or maybe hammer striking heated metal on anvil is a metaphor for the way we want to shape a new reality; from sickness to health, from injury to healing. We are blacksmiths of the human body; or red-smiths, maybe, for the blood we see spilled.
I know that as I grow older, I see another metaphor here. I see my patients like those unshaped bits of iron; of uncertain value and utility, dirty and sometimes abandoned. But I know that in them lies potential; beauty and goodness beneath years of rust and disuse and neglect. Like the way I put the grinder against my 150+ year-old anvil and when I stopped, it’s rough surface shined like a new platinum ring.
Most of our hobbies, our ‘avocations’ give us insight into our medical work. Perhaps we choose them for that reason. Or maybe just for the escape; for the Zen moments of ‘no-mind’ that allow healing and rejuvenation as we work at a thing without feeling as if it is work.
All I know is this. Medicine seems to be getting more difficult all the time. And the house of medicine is leaning on our specialty more heavily than ever before. But whatever your hobbies, let me assure you that we have walked through the smoke and fire, all of us. We have all been ourselves shaped by the fire, hammer and anvil of suffering and struggle. We have also shaped new realities for the people we have treated and saved. And most of us keep coming back because we feel a comfort in the artistry that medicine has become; a deep, abiding pride in our craft.
So I say this, friends: be strong. Do not be afraid of the struggles to come. Embrace them with joy. Find the peace that comes from artistry well-practiced; for remember, medicine is art. And however hot it gets, however choked you are by smoke and ash, however tired your limbs, be proud of the skill and strength that brings you back to the fire each day.
Only a few could do it. And you are numbered among them.
If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down the path, hammer in hand.
A snowstorm brings the gifts of solitude and silence
This is my column in today’s Greenville News. Happy Winter!
When I was in medical school in West Virginia, I was also in the Air National Guard. One drill weekend, when I was scheduled to drive to my unit, a blizzard blew into town. And I mean the real kind, officially designated by the weather service and properly pedigreed.
I had every legitimate reason to call my Chief Master Sergeant, explain the situation, and stay in Morgantown, tucked in my apartment. I didn’t. I decided that I had to make the three and a half hour drive. Was I patriotic? Yes. Was my girlfriend, and current wife, also at the end of the drive? Absolutely.
So off I went, in my little red Dodge hatch-back. I slid into a guard-rail on the way out of town, but the damage was cosmetic. I continued on my way. The snow was thick, and the wind blew it in great gusts across I-79. It piled up along the way, and at various points I recall that it was difficult to see the lights in business by the side of the road, difficult to make out the lights of other vehicles. I could barely see road signs until I was very nearly next to them. I drove behind, and by, snow plows and salt trucks.
As I drove further on my journey, I saw fewer and fewer vehicles, testament to the potential of the storm. I pulled over at a fast-food restaurant for a break. My hair and coat were wet with snow just from the walk into the building. I grabbed a large Coke and a snack, then settled back into my car.
Not much further down the road, I spilled the entire drink in my lap; a sure way to stay awake when it’s below freezing and snow is swirling all about. I stopped, next, at a shopping center and changed clothes. Just in time, because wise managers were sending employees home for their safety. Foolish and intrepid, I pressed on, my clothes dry and my drink refilled.
In the end, it took about six hours or more to reach home. I made it to drill, and I visited with Jan. It was a foolish, wonderful, thing to do, traveling in weather like that. If my children did it, I’d be furious, and worried. And at least they would have cell-phones, which of course almost no one had then.
But there was something about it that I can’t describe. There was a beauty in that snow, that solitude, that uncertainty. Maybe it was spending so much time with so many people in classes and in the hospital. Maybe it was that fact that as a child, I liked to wander in snowy woods alone, and hide in snow-banks, listening to the wind in the trees. Sometimes, loneliness is just the ticket.
A few weeks ago I was traveling in Indiana. A snow-storm came up as I drove towards Evansville. It was just a few flakes in Louisville. But as I drove west on I-64, the flakes became more frequent, and ultimately, the roads became slick, the lights dimmed by the enveloping white. Finally, the snow was blowing horizontally across the road, and cars were fewer. I found my way to my hotel and settled in for the night.
Mind you, I had a cell-phone, and a more reliable (and likely safer) vehicle than back in my medical school days. And I’m a better driver than I was then. And unfortunately, I was driving away from my wife and children, rather than towards them. But there was a similar emotion, a familiar sense of delight.
The highways of the Midwest are long and often straight. Even when they snake up and down hills, their vistas are impressive. Seeing the snow come across those highways, seeing the black clouds coalesce, sitting quietly in my car with the dash-board lights and radio, well that was a kind of quiet treasure; a gift of travel and solitude.
But it’s a gift we rarely receive these days. Our phones are never at rest, and never leave us at rest. Screens are everywhere, in offices and waiting rooms, in homes and even in vehicles. We clamor for more information, more entertainment, more people, more connection. The lights of social media are never dimmed by weather.
It’s a pity, because solitude is often magnificent. And silence is spiritual. And few things bring them together like driving alone in a snowstorm.
Who needs a high capacity magazine? Who needs a weapon capable of firing more than ten rounds? These questions echo across the airwaves and in the pages of magazines, newspapers, blogs and every conceivable outlet. Well guarded politicians and cultural figures wring their hands in safety and newspaper offices post guards as they debate the merits of regular people with scary weapons.
For what it’s worth, I don’t like the tactic of anyone appealing to what I ‘need.’ It conveys a false concern at best, and at worst a terrible paternalism; the sort of paternalism that the American Left has railed against for decades, whenever fathers told daughters, husbands told wives, churches told believers or government told citizens what they should ‘need.’ But now, it’s positively fashionable to tell gun owners what they do, or don’t, need.
So, since ‘need’ is all the rage, let me explain why we ‘need’ those magazines and those rifles and handguns that use them.
First, our Leftist friends have been misled by media. I fear that they believe the movies and television shows in which the intrepid, rebellious, foul-mouthed detective always comes out smiling when he uses his snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver to take down bad-guys with automatic weapons. He pushes the female lead out of the way and fires a snap-shot at the roof-line, and Voila! The cartel member with the AK-47, 100 yards away, plummets to the ground. He was dead before he fell.
In short, gun-control advocates like to think that every gunshot wound is the end for the person shot. However, let me lay a little medicine down. It isn’t true. While being shot is sometimes fatal, very often it isn’t. And even if it is ultimately, the ‘shootee’ often has time to a) call 911 for help b) drive away or c) continue to do terrible things to the object of his or her rage and violent impulses.
Many years ago I was privileged to help teach a class on wounding. The students were a sniper class, which was mixture of city police officers, FBI hostage rescue team members and SEAL team members. I was an emergency medicine resident then, and it was a hoot. They were some of the nicest people I had ever met, and after the talk my fellow instructor and I were allowed to ‘play’ with their toys, such delightful treasures as suppressed sub-machine guns and sniper rifles. It was, in short, a gun-lover’s dream come true.
But before we went to the range we discussed some important points. Mainly, for a shot to be instantly incapacitating, it has to do one of three things. It must either cause complete vascular collapse; for instance, it must cause the heart to cease to function or a large blood vessel like the aorta to be penetrated and cause sudden, massive hemorrhage. Or, it can strike the central nervous system in such a way that complete neurologic incapacitation occurs. For instance, it must strike the brain-stem, which is the lower portion of the brain behind the mouth and ears. If this happens, the heart stops beating and breathing ceases. Other brain shots may, or may not, immediately incapacitate the individual so injured. Finally, the wound can cause sudden structural failure; for instance, shattering a femur or pelvis, or shooting away a spinal segment that causes the individual to be unable to support his or herself.
Short of these situations, a person may be shot and continue to fight, continue to kill, well after a wound is inflicted. The FBI learned this the hard way in Florida, in 1986, when agents found their service weapons inadequate in the fight against two bank robbers, resulting in the deaths of two agents, and ultimately of both criminals. And in the re-arming of the entire agency.
Now, the average person defending hearth and home may be able to inflict a fatal wound on an assailant. But their odds go up dramatically with a larger number of rounds fired. Five or six rounds from a revolver might look good in a Western, but the Duke is gone (rest his soul) and Jose Wales has retired, and it’s up to regular folks to do the work of protecting the ranch from marauders. A rifle with ten, twenty or thirty rounds available might be necessary.
Why is this? In part, it’s because the kind of practice necessary to make those incredible, one shot incapacitating wounds is not easy to get. Life is busy. Suburban and urban shooters can’t go into their back yards and fire off rounds the way rural dwellers, like me, can. And it requires good coaching from skilled teachers. A Marine marksman or sniper takes time to create. In fact, one reason the M-16, and its civilian brother the AR-15, came into the US military arsenal is that it is easier to give soldiers a light weapon, with light ammo and lots of it, capable of semi-automatic and (for the military) automatic fire, than it is to train them to be long-range marksmen.
In addition, those well-placed shots are difficult because of duress. As an emergency physician, I’ll attest to the fact that stress makes seemingly simple physical skills more difficult. So when we are afraid, when we are stressed, when we are worried about protecting our spouses and children, when we are fearful for our own lives, it can be tough to keep that weapon on target. Tough to get the correct sight picture. Tough to pull that trigger without moving the barrel too much. Thus, having extra rounds is a good thing, not a bad thing, for lawful citizens. The police understand this. Most city and county police officers are no more at war than the people they protect. But they want weapons that can fire lots of bullets. Even they are subject to the vagaries of training and the physiology of stress.
But there’s more. Drugs, and even alcohol, change the equation. Having seen a 90 pound woman on drugs bite and kick her way through several security guards, having seen the crazy look in the eye of quietly menacing mental health patients whose violent impulses are escalating, having met people in custody for murder and rape, having lived in a county where home invasions have resulted in terrible deaths, I feel that I can safely say that while the world has lots of good people, bad people are more dangerous than ever. Not only so, home invasions are often accomplished by more than one assailant. Bad guys have no sense of honor, and aren’t interested in even odds. More than one bullet, more than one magazine, may be necessary. Especially for those who live in areas further from police protection.
In addition, as drug addiction rises not only to Methamphetamine but to narcotics like Vicodin, Klonopin, Oxycontin, Fentanyl, Morphine and everything else imaginable, (including ever new drugs like Bath Salts being manufactured in clandestine labs), people become more desperate than ever to feed their addictions. They rob pharmacies and break into homes. They steel from the chronically ill and the dying and they will not hesitate to kill you to obtain money or drugs. And if you doubt me, ask your friendly local narcotics officer, ER nurse, physician or paramedic about the level of crazy out there these days.
Finally, however, there’s another reason. You see, we now live and move in a world in which we have ceased to believe in right or wrong. A society that rejects not only God but natural law; that finds it moralizing or fundamentalist to suggest that we inflect (God forbid) our values on young minds. Far better if Hollywood (known for its peaceful, gun-free films), or college professors teach our young how to behave. Well we have sown the wind, and now reap the whirlwind.
The Left has won the debate over morals so far. They are busily expunging faith from the public square and happily teaching the young that the individual is the only arbiter of right and wrong. My liberal friends, you got it. The least you can do for creating generations of violent criminals with no fear of God or man is to allow the rest of us the tools with which to defend ourselves.
In all honestly, I don’t have a black rifle with all the protruding bits that give Leftists nightmares. But if, and when, the price ever drops again, and ammunition and magazines are available again, (thank you Mr. President for stimulating that bit of the economy!) I’ll likely buy one.
Because I do, in fact, need a high capacity magazine. If you don’t want one, don’t bother. But my life, and the lives of my wife and children, are worth protecting in the best way I know how. And as far as I’m concerned, if I should have to protect them with a firearm, I want lots of bullets; which translates into lots of reasons for addicts, psychopaths and every other dangerous nut to leave me alone. And if they won’t, lots of chances to make them drop where they stand. That’s what I need.
What you need is for you to decide.
Here is my latest column in Emergency Medicine News. I hope you enjoy it!
My wife just built a pergola in our yard. Mind you, a pergola is a thing I never knew existed until it was pointed out to me by my darling. If I had been asked, ‘what do you think of her pergola,’ I might have thought, ‘well, it certainly fills out that dress nicely,’ or perhaps, ‘I remember that from pathology. It incubates for four weeks, causes fever and weeping skin sores and is common in the Pacific islands.’
Turns out it’s that structure you see in elegant yards, or in the sacred pages of our Dixie Holy Book, Southern Living. A pergola is the wooden framed structure that ladies of taste have in their yards, and on which assorted vines grow for shade, and beneath which said ladies and their charming children have cakes and lemonade in oppressive summer heat. Incidentally, I have explained to my wife that Southern Living is merely house porn…images of things that one desires but which do not actually appear in nature and which are not actually available to mere mortals. I now stand corrected, though our pergola may have wild animal carcasses dragged beneath it, unlike those in Southern Living.
Our pergola is almost finished. Thanks to the skill and vision of my Jan (who probably should have been an engineer), and thanks to the strength and agility of my children, the tools and experience of my various in-laws, it has risen from the ground behind our house. Its posts are set in concrete, its beams securely nailed. It’s tall posts and well-measured intervals caused me to ask Jan if it were aligned with the summer and winter solstice, and if we’d be dancing naked beneath it. She smiled and said, ‘maybe!’
Pergola entered my vocabulary because it was something my wife desired; something of interest to her. I’ve learned other things from that girl. I’ve learned about leadership skills, which she used to teach to college students and still teaches to our church youth. I’ve learned about volunteerism, and historical romance. About Japanese words and her love of Ireland, land of her ancestors. I’ve even learned things I can’t discuss here.
But she isn’t my only teacher; not at all. From my children I learned many things as well. If not for my son Seth, I wouldn’t have my deep love of the bag-pipe. Many years ago, when he was small, we heard the band Albanach play a show. They are a group of Scots who play pipes and drums the way Ted Nugent plays the guitar. Watching their show, one understands why the English viewed Highland combat with a certain reluctance. But they inspired my son. And he has played the pipes, better and better, for years. It was also Seth who led us down the path of learning the ancient art of blacksmithing. A smithy sits in our yard, and we fire it up whenever we need to shape metal and feel the heat, see the sparks and ‘get our iron on.’
My daughter Elysa taught me the fine art of playing dolls, and endlessly teaches me about fashion and contemporary culture. She makes me dance in the dining room, and asks me questions about my past, and her mothers. She shows me how to make movies on an i-Pad and how to do all of the things on my computer I should understand, but don’t. She also teaches me to see inside the hearts of others, for she is a born healer, all compassion.
Elijah, my 13-year-old, forces me to learn. I am always behind his vocabulary, and interests, as he quizzes me on German words (I don’t know any, I try to explain), relativity (zoology degree, not physics), Norse Mythology and ancient combat. (OK, I know a little.) But his passion for knowing forces me to read, to learn and to never stop loving the act.
And my oldest, Sam, teaches me that there’s always a reason to laugh, always a new ‘Meme’ online that I need to see, always a new idea on BBC news or somewhere else that we need to discuss. He introduced me to the band Muse, and is my guide to the modern music scene. In fact, his enthusiasm for his favorite band led his mother and I to drive family and friends to see the band in Indianapolis in the summer of 2011.
What’s my point here, you may be asking? Not to catalog my family hobbies, certainly. My point is this. We physicians can be a focused bunch. We work, we study, we write or do research, we speak. For so long, we’ve listened to our own interests and followed our own requirements. We get lost in education, then in continuing education and in the vagaries of practice. So lost, in fact, that we lose touch with the very interests and tendencies of the people we love. And we forget that love is more than an emotion. Love involves engagement in the lives of others, and sacrifice of some our time, some of ourselves, for their good.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a husband and parent, and not always done well, it’s that we have to open our eyes, ears and hearts to the passions of the people we love. I could have devoted my entire life, and all of my time, to me. But what a loss. I have learned so much more by being led by my dear family! Lead on walks, lead to play X-Box, lead to imagine, lead to dance, lead to build a coal smithy and make things, lead to play airsoft, to listen to concerts, to read widely and always embrace life in its wonders.
In the process of following, of letting go of my own agenda, I was lead deeper into the hearts of my wife and kids. I am safely ensconced there now, and their interests and joys have been welded to my own. I couldn’t undo it if I wanted. But I don’t.
Because in the process, we have had laughter and love, games and trips, learning and adventure. I have become so much more than a physician, so much wider in scope, wiser in life, richer in knowledge and skills.
And we have a pergola, for crying out loud! How cool is that? And I for one can’t wait to sip lemonade beneath it.
Bagpipes and anvils and music from alt bands
German and physics and myths out of Iceland,
Pergolas, dancing and daughters with bling,
these are a few of my favorite things!