The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments and musings
I love to swim, though I've never been particularly good at it--the first and only time I joined a swim team was in the 8th grade, and I always placed last in our swimming competitions. I never swam competitively again after that summer. I did, however, learn the basics of swimming, which has since allowed me to come back again and again to enjoy the water.
The first return happened freshman year, when one day, I decided to go to the Mac Pool to swim laps. I had not swum laps in years, but something in me was aching for the pool. Something special happened the moment I hit the water. I felt so calm. The things that had been pulling at me washed away the moment I entered the pool. What followed were a series of meditative laps where I could focus just on the sensation of water kissing my body. When I got out of the pool, I began the process of preparing for life on land--putting on my underwear, my clothes, my makeup, and drying my hair gently beneath the automatic dryers. It felt like a slow recrystalization of myself into a better, cleaner form. That process was just as enjoyable, if not more, than the act of swimming.
I kept on swimming laps once in a blue moon However, in future swimming sessions, I felt more than just a sense of rejuvenating calm. I felt like I was becoming an axolotl! At one point, I had a pet axolotl named Harold. I would often watch Harold swim in his tank, He seemed so human like with his little hands and feet, his little fingers and toes paddling in the water. When I swam, I felt myself becoming like Harold, my fingers and toes spreading webs. I imagined fins sprouting from my spine as my body generated its own rhythm of movement. I no longer had to think about each stroke, and instead, the sequence was run on automation. I simply existed in the quiet, underwater world, swimming forward simply because that was what I was created to do.
I have tried explaining this sensation to friends, but to no avail. They didn't quite understand, and my explanations only made it more confusing. My research led me to discover the "mammalian diving reflex," in which mammals, soon after immersing themselves in water, will have a slower heart beat. Blood vessels in the periphery will also constrict so that blood can be sourced to the torso and vital organs. The body magnificently adjusts to the water world, giving us an immediate sense of calm. Yet, the mammalian dive reflex explained "how" I felt like an axolotl, but it did not explain "why."
I found the missing puzzle piece in a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh (I'm going to be mentioning his name a lot, not just in this post, but in future posts too, because I love that man and he is my idol). He said that every cell in our bodies contains all the information from our ancestors. When we become aware of our bodies, we can connect to our ancestors. That is the art of mindfulness.
It suddenly all made sense. When I swim, I am forced to pay attention to my body: my breathing, my strokes, the position of my arms as they sweep backwards for another stroke, and the angle of my legs as they kick. When I am in the present moment, focusing on nothing but the current act of swimming, I become mindful and aware of my body, which is already physiologically connecting with its origins via the mammalian dive reflex.
In that moment when mind and body align, I can look deeply into the parts of my DNA that come from my swimming ancestors. I see the places that Harold and I have a common: we are both chordates, with spines, and bilateral symmetry; we are cephalic and we swim. Each lap is another step backwards in time, deeper down the branches of the evolutionary tree. I become an axolotl, much like how the narrator of Cortazars "Axolotl" becomes one when he gazes at them in an aquarium.
When I am finished swimming, I arrive at the point of the tree where my ancestors left the ocean for land. I too, am ready to take on the demands of life that lie outside of the swimming pool. I am stronger now because I have gained wisdom into the wonderful things that are a part of my DNA--thousands of years of adaptation and survival. As I emerge from the water, the fins retract into my skin, the webs disappear, and by the time my hair is dry and my clothes are on, I am fully human again, but I know that the water will always be a home for me. And that is why I love swimming.
The hospital where I work rarely receives trauma patients, as it sits in a rather pasty area of town. However, a few days ago I saw my first trauma patient. He had been stabbed multiple times a couple weeks ago and was hospitalized for 9 days. This time he came in because he couldn't breath. He was a very young, handsome man, who looked like he could still be in college. He came in with his girlfriend, his sister, his mother, and his father, all who sat quietly by his bedside for all 8 hours that he was in the emergency room. They looked at him with such tender concern.
That night, I was working with a particularly rude doctor who cared very little for his patients. Earlier, when we saw a pregnant woman who was bleeding from her vagina and having abdominal cramping, he explained to her that she was having a miscarriage by saying, "You are passing the products of conception... so yeah that means your baby is coming out." The woman started crying and he just left the room without any sympathy for her emotional experience.
When it came time to see this young man, the doctor again showed his same apathy. He barely asked any questions about the patient's symptoms, while typically a case that severe--it showed up as pink in the system, which means moderately dangerous--one would do a very thorough interview. On the physical exam, he sloppily touched the patient. It was just for show. It amazed me the contrast between this doctor's mannerisms and the seriousness of the patient's family.
When we walked out of the room, I closed the door behind me and noticed that the patient, who had been quiet this whole time--he couldn't talk much because of his condition-- was wearing fuzzy plaid slippers on his feet. How and when those slippers were put on, I don't know. But in that instant I could see his girlfriend putting them on for him because his feet were cold. The slippers screamed against the dehumanizing backdrop of tubes and monitors and pale blue gloves and gowns. I could imagine the patient as a healthy young man, walking around the kitchen at night in his slippers, making jokes with his family, cool and casually, and flashing a stellar smile from his handsome face. It was an artifact of life outside the hospital that had crept in.
That was not the first time that a patient's shoes made a strong impression on me. Once, we saw a woman who came in with her husband and son. As we examined her, I noticed that the father and son were both reading books. Not your typical beach read, New York Times Bestselling bogus, but older, dusty covered hardbacks that looked like they came from a well-curated used book store. Like father like son, and I wondered if the mom read too. Probably. I looked down and noticed that they were wearing the same type of shoes--fisherman sandals.
Later on, after we had left the room and were in the main care team area, I saw the three of them walking down the hall. The father and son were helping the woman go to the bathroom. I looked down again and noticed that all three of them were wearing matching fisherman sandals. This made me giggle because it was so cute. I could imagine them preparing to leave to drive to the hospital, all slipping on their shoes as they walked out of the house. And perhaps those shoes were all stacked in the same shoe rack just beside the garage door, like ours is at home.
Seeing all these shoes, it makes me realize that we are not just treating patients, but their loves ones too. On the patient's chart, I may write "47 year old female presents to ED for evaluation of ...." or "25 year old male presents to ED for evaluation of..." but in reality we are treating mothers, sons, wives, boyfriends, and sisters. Even those who claim to not have any family, or who are homeless, share threads with other people.
Once, we saw a man come in for thoughts of hurting himself. He was homeless, and every week he goes to one ER or another, sometimes to avoid arrest by the police, sometimes to just have a place to stay and be safe. He had a great sense of humor and told funny stories that made the nurses laugh. And according to one nurse, the man had collected enough hospital socks that he had one of every color. That story, too made me smile. Even this man had made connections and relations with the hospital staff. One is never truly alone, and you could tell by his socks.
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.