Kodak Moments

Unfortunately, I can cry at pretty much anything.

I cry at contestants winning prizes on television quiz shows, black and white photographs of people I don’t know and an old man shuffling around Sainsbury’s with half a loaf of bread in a wire basket. Certain pieces of music can take me from completely fine to an absolute wreck in approximately thirty seconds.

When I was twelve years old, I asked my piano teacher if I could learn Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2. She refused my (rather ambitious) request and told me that I couldn’t play Chopin until I’d lived. At the time, I was hugely resentful and refused to practice arpeggios in an act of defiance. Now, sadly, I can say with absolute certainty that she was completely correct. I can also say with absolute certainty, that I sometimes feel as though I have lived just a little too much.

Of course, I don’t cry for the perfect combination of crotchets and quavers. Nor do I cry for the Carter family who have won a three week holiday in Barbados. I cry for the Kodak moments, the small snippets of other people’s lives which I take home with me every night and if you walk a circuit of any hospital, you will find many of these moments in wards and clinics and hidden behind paper thin curtains in anonymous cubicles.

I cry for the family who walk down the hospital corridor at 3am, pale and shocked, with their arms wrapped around each other in case one of them should fall. The man who sits in intensive care every day, reading to a wife who doesn’t hear his voice and will never hear his voice again. The mother who tries to sleep on a chair, with her hand reaching out through the bars of a cot. I cry for the little girl in the cancer clinic, who is told she doesn’t ever have to come back to hospital again and she can go to Disneyland instead and I especially cry when I think of the battle on her parents’ faces as they try to join in with her excitement.

I have collected so many Kodak moments over the years and they fill album after album in my head. I have so many albums now, I am beginning to wonder if I am cut from the right cloth to practice medicine.

I am told compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s something to be desired and applauded. But compassion will eat away at your sanity. It will make you pull up in a layby on the journey home, because you can no longer see the road for tears and it will creep through your mind in the darkness and keep you from your sleep.

In my first job as a doctor, an expected death occurred on the ward and I went to my consultant’s office in order to inform him.

“Lawrence has died!” I said, in a most unprofessional, junior doctor way.

My consultant didn’t reply, but continued with his very important consultant-type paperwork. After a few minutes, he looked up and frowned.

“Ah. You mean the bowel cancer in side room four has died?”

“Yes,” I repeated, “Lawrence has died.”

I hated him for the rest of the rotation. It’s only now that I realise even the most compassionate of physicians must trade at least a layer of their humanity in order to survive.

At the moment, this is not an exchange I am willing to make.

And if you are not able to make this sacrifice, you will continue to collect albums full of Kodak moments and burst into tears at Family Fortunes. You will also sometimes play Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2. over and over and over again to rid yourself of the layers of other people’s misery which fill your mind.

And the cloth from which you are cut will begin to suffocate you.

Comments

  1. Joanna, this is just beautiful. Made me want to cry just reading it. I hope you never lose your compassion, more Doctors should be like you. x

  2. I am crying reading this post. Such compassion, such empathy for the joys and pains of others will bring you great misery and , conversely, great joy. Your sensitivity will make you experience life as a series of super highs and crushing lows, but would you rather live a flat-line existence? I know I wouldn’t. The laughter makes the tears worthwhile and it’s what makes us write, play music, paint – whatever we do to express these feelings we have inside.
    Keep on feeling, Jo. Keep on being you.
    Nx

  3. A beautiful post Joanna and one that brought a lump to my throat.

    I know some of how you feel and understand the sentiment behind your post. My own job comes with it’s own images and emotional hurdles. Snapshots. A few I will never ever lose and ones people should never ever see. Strangely enough a colleague only spoke of this yesterday. Of images that he will hold forever. Mostly boxed away but easily recovered.

    I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that we must lose a layer of humanity to deal with the heartbreak certain professions bring with them. I think you desperately need humanity. To lose that layer is sad. Coping mechanisms are a definite requirement, in whatever form they take but Joanna, don’t ever think you need to lose a layer of humanity. It is our most precious gift and is that which makes us human.

  4. Yes, you’ve practiced very well. Your words bring to mind a cadence of musicality that is moving.

    Don’t think of it as trading compassion for something else. It’s more like adding a layer of distance to those Kodak moments. With that, they can better tap into their knowledge and expertise, while the families bring the emotion to the hospital room.

  5. I’m just the same. A firework display, an amazing view, a live orchestral piece, a snippet on the TV, good news from my family especially my sons. A memory unexpectedly reminding me of some significant moment or a touching story from a complete stranger and watching the runners at the Bath Half Marathon set me off big time last Sunday.

    A lovely piece, made me think I’m not alone and maybe I shouldn’t be so embarrassed about my (sometimes), lack of emotional control!

  6. I can only imagine how hard this is for you, but I am certain that a compassionate physician touches lives gently at the most needed moments and makes more of a difference than they will ever, ever know. X

  7. Oh yes. I know this very well. I have albums of Kodak moments, some neatly filed, others random that filter unbidden in front of my eyes as an unwelcome reminder and inappropriate time. I write about such moments in my stories (and did so only yesterday) because they are my memories and to forget them would mean they meant nothing – to me, to the people involved, to the meaning of life. They haunt my days and invade in my dreams. The price is high.
    But I would do it all again in an instant.
    Thank you for sharing yours.

  8. Very very powerful and emotive – a moving insight.

    I could not hope to do the job do or have such clear resilience and strength of character.

    Your emotional release is clearly an essential pressure release that allows you to have the compassion and empathy that equally clearly sets you apart from the average medical professional.

    Thank you for sharing.

  9. I’m exactly the same. I often shed tears at the small things more than the big ones. But, whilst I understand that someone on the front line of human pain and misery such as a doctor has to rein in emotions, I don’t see why he or she can’t combine compassion with professionalism. That consultant was plain wrong, it seems to me. I would not expect him to burst into tears over the patient’s death but any doctor who forgets his humanity is a bad doctor.

    My male GP held my hand the other day. It wasn’t sexual or creepy (nor was he compromising his professionalism as my husband was sitting next to me.) I admired him all the more for it. He is a good doctor.

  10. Jo, once again, an amazing, thought provoking work. I love reading your words. Seriously, you’re wasted here. You should be a published author. So amazingly insiteful. Thanks for sharing them with us. X

  11. Kodak moments are often all we have left as we forget great chunks of our past life to concentrate on the busy-ness of now.

    Mine all have an emotional label. Perhaps that’s why we treasure and even nurture them.

    Thanks, Jo, for a powerful insight.

  12. A brilliant post. And I don’t think the fact that you cry is unfortunate at all. I do too. You describe your reasons beautifully though – far better than I could.

  13. Hi Jo, very moving and beautifully written. In my own way I can relate to that. Giving therapeutic massage to frail elderly I’ve had to recognise my lack of power over outcomes so I focus on inputs. One dementia sufferer is almost inert but her eyes change when she’s having massage: I know the caring energy is benefitting her ‘at that moment’. I cope by the moment in this way. With terminal patients there may only be time for one or sessions before I lose them but I’m learning to focus on those shared moments and to distance myself from the loss, otherwise I would become too negative to help anyone else. Stay strong. @duthra

  14. I love your blogs Joanna. Always stir up the real emotions most of us would feel if in the situations you face.

    @stressed_eric72

  15. You don’t have to lose a layer of humanity to be a good doctor, Jo – you, yourself exemplify that.
    You do need to be able to share/offload some of the emotion though or you’ll burn out.
    Your compassion shines through in every post you make on your blog – I hope you find a way to carry on with your career without compromising your compassion or your own well-being.
    Don’t forget to take care of yourself ….

  16. I just read this, with some difficulty, to my father. We looked at one another and remember the occasion when his former GP reached out and, briefly, touched my father’s hand. His GP was a great man who has retired early. His compassion left him exhausted.
    I try not to bother my GP unless it is absolutely essential but the last time I was there and he had written the necessary prescriptions I got up to leave he said, “Stay a moment.” Was something wrong? Yes – but he was the one who needed help, not me.

    People ask me how I do my job too but I think I am lucky. It is one step away from the coalface. I am at the head of the pit not down the mine but I wait anxiously for each team to return to the surface. I tell people “I switch off at night”. It is not true but it is the only they can cope. As Eliot says, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Hugs.

  17. Awww you’re a perfect doctor and medicine is a better place because you’re a part of it. I think you have already decided the area you want to specialise in, and both you and your patients will benefit hugely from you moving along that career pathway.

  18. Jo – it’s so hard… we need to remain compassionate to be who we are and be all that we can be … but we need to protect our hearts so that we don’t overwhelm ourselves and can remain the fullness of ourselves. I found the same as you when i worked in Africa surrounded by poverty and brokenness.

    But… amidst the heartbreaking Kodak moments are the joyful ones – the frailty of our human-ness reveals our the truth in our heart – both sadness and joy – we can cope with the sadness as long as we can embrace the unexpected joys that are scattered around too …..

    Your compassion and warmth is exactly why you’re a brilliant Doctor – your patients will respond to you – they’ll trust you and reveal more to you – they’ll know that they’re in good hands and whatever the ‘moment’ is … sad or joyfilled – they’ll know that they’re cared for far far far beyond ‘medical care’ …

    Keep on pressing on … and keep on sharing your wonderful writing – i always love to read your posts.

    Sxxx

  19. I’m sure your patients appreciate that you care so much and are not just a dispassionate, detached observer. I’m not doubting that the latter type are any less doctors, but it must be good for the patient to think that their doctor sees the person rather than just the case. I hope in time that you will be able to take less of it home with you, without losing your compassion or humanity – it’s those things that make you such a great writer!

  20. Late to the post but a lovely post. The way some nurses, carers and doctors treated my grandma, who had dementia, still breaks my heart when I think about it. And I wish I had done more to complain about it. All I could do was fight her corner (on one occasion, insisting that they take her to hospital because she wasn’t well, and then discovering that her stomach was leaking blood) but I wish I had forced them to think of her as a human being rather than just another dementia patient who couldn’t speak for herself.

    Sally’s comment reminded me of something similar – just after my dog died, it meant a lot to me that the vet who’d been caring for him through his illness sat with me as I cried and held my hand until I’d calmed down.

  21. Wow, I am so glad to have found your blog, every piece is beautiful, and they are all tugging at my heart strings. You are an amazing writer, that’s for sure.

  22. Your blog really touched a nerve for me. I work in healthcare, also.
    We need to be strong for the people with whom we work, but also open and human. Use words and touch to reach out and allow them to know they are not alone. We’re in the fight together! The moment we lose the need and ability to allow ourselves an emotional connection, then the people become ‘patients’. Non human. Just ‘things’. A manager I used to work for described this as becoming ‘brutalised’. Professionals just getting ‘used’ to seeing emotional pain and trauma on a daily basis. I work hard to try not to lose the emotional connection, (and have been accused of being overly emotional: I cry incredibly easily; I close the office door and shout and swear; I whoop when things go right for people). I don’t think this is wrong. It can frighten other people! It’s exhausting at times, but actually, I think it keeps me centred on why I do what I do.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad I’m not the only emotional soul! 🙂

  23. It can be too much to lose just one person in our lives and no-one could expect you to share that grief in the same way. Nobody can bear that. To understand their loss is enough.

  24. Kodak moments grab me at completely unexpected moments. I think if you are used to, not perhaps bottling emotion but to shelving it for a time when you can deal with it, then emotion will seep out at odd moments. I can cry buckets at tiny things because they seem to represent everything.

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