That blur of a weekend in the California sun has came and gone. With it came tons of laughs, learning, and stories of learning to live with life’s hurdles. The big theme this year was empathy. A topic I’m honestly not very good at.
You see, while in paramedic school you are taught to disregard your empathetic leanings and act according to the instinct that is drilled into your head for the next two years. Don’t get me wrong, empathy has it’s place in emergency medicine. I’ve held the hand of many a patient who were at their worst the very moment they met me. The difference is that in the moments of a true emergency it’s easier to treat a disease process or injury than it is to treat a person. Sure, I may be working to save your wife’s life, but to me she isn’t your wife, she’s the head bleed from a car wreck. It may be your grandfather, but to me it was the cardiac arrest and the accompanying rhythm I was treating. It’s a harsh way to look at the world, but it allowed me to do my job. Clear the hospital and pick up the next patient in the quickest time, without dwelling on the life that is in my hands. There were times where empathy got in the way. The pediatric patient who happened to be wearing the same shoes I had just bought my son made it impossible to not realize I was working on a child. I was able to resuscitate him, but it interfered with my ability to return to work immediately. In the world of Public Safety that can be construed as a sign of weakness. Yes, in the “Hero” business of saving lives, caring too much can be viewed as weakness. Then came my accident. I traded places with the many patients I have treated over the years. I was now the one lying on the backboard getting a guided tour of the sky and ceiling of the ambulance. I now had first hand experience of the fear of being a patient. Empathy now had a permanent place in my heart.
Fast forward to this years Medicine X conference. I had just sat down for breakfast in the ePatient lounge and it happened. A pop. Just loud enough for me to hear. I quickly scanned my prosthetic leg and noticed a missing screw. The screw to my rotator had broken, this allows the socket to rotate left and right to be centered to the prosthetic knee. It’s a piece that I never think of, because I have rarely had to use it. In fact, I had never heard of anyone having this piece break. And now here I am, struggling to walk, each step I had to fight my prosthetic to keep it remained centered. I had to use my hip and back muscles to constantly, all while keeping an eye on each step to keep from falling. I explained my issues to one of the physicians who helped get me to Medicine X Dr Kadra (sorry Bassam if this is spelled wrong). Immediately, the Medicine X support staff began finding me a prosthetist to get the problem fixed. The difference here is that they all had empathy. No, there were no other amputee’s at this conference. Yet, each person there pictured what it would be like to be in the position I had just found myself in. That’s the difference empathy can make. They only wanted the best for me, and although they had never experienced my fear, they placed themselves in a position where they understood. They worked tirelessly to find a solution, and thanks to one of the staff, found a prosthetist that was willing to come to me and try to fix the problem. Although we weren’t able to find a permanent solution to my broken screw, we managed a temporary fix that would get me through the day. This fix gave way as I stepped on stage to give my Ignite Speech. I was panicked as I delivered my speech. I had planned to walk around the stage, show my advanced prosthetic in action, instead I was left to stand front and center and face a crowd of faces.
As I looked around, I was shocked to notice so many of my fellow ePatients staring up at me. Wanting nothing but for me to succeed and deliver the message I had prepared. The speech went off without a hitch. I was able to get my point across, although not as I had planned. It was a spiritual experience. That’s the only way I can describe it.
In fact, that’s a great way to describe a weekend spent on the Stanford University campus; Spiritual. It’s a utopia of sorts, no, you aren’t going to get along with everyone. You won’t connect with each person, but there will be a group that you do connect with. You will feel at home. You will be welcomed. No matter what is going on with you. If you’re a diabetic, have Rheumatoid Arthritis, MS, Cancer, or a disease so rare that you are the only person in the US with a documented case…YOU BELONG HERE! You will be welcomed with open arms. You will be taken care of, no matter what that may mean. They will help you overcome your problems and help mold you into a better version of you. Even if it’s only for a weekend.
Medicine X’s tagline is that “This is where technology and medicine intersect” and to a point that is true. More true is that Medicine X is a place where You are more than a sum of your parts, you’re more than your disease, and they want to help you celebrate that. Don’t believe me? The next round of applications are coming up this winter. Apply, prove me wrong. Last year, Medicine X taught me the power of the Patient Narrative, and how your words can change how medicine is practiced. This year, I was able to learn the power of embracing who you are as a person. How powerful it can be to say My Name is Joe Riffe, I am a Left Above Knee Amputee, and I want to change the world for other Amputees. I am more than my situation. I am more than my physical malady. I AM JOE RIFFE, THE PROSTHETIC MEDIC, AND I AM A HUSBAND, FATHER, SON, BROTHER, FRIEND, AMPUTEE, PARAMEDIC, AND I CAN HELP YOU, BECAUSE I WILL BE EMPATHETIC TO YOU AND WHATEVER YOU BRING TO THE TABLE. I have been on both sides of the stretcher, and can honestly say You are more than the sum of your parts, you are not your disease or injury, or pain…NO, you are You and there are no other you’s out there. Celebrate that! I will help you as much as I can along the way; and if I can’t…I know someone who can, just let me call on my fellow ePatients. We will welcome you as you are. You Belong Here!