“Phew,” he said, “You doctors think your time is more valuable than mine. I’ve been waiting 25 minutes and I’m going to bill you for that.”
Phew! The way Eric was seeing things that day, it reminds me of how people see when they have glaucoma. When you look at your loved one’s face and you have glaucoma, you can see most of their face but you can’t always see the edges, and you can’t see the surroundings very well. All Eric was seeing is me, and how I was the problem and the cause of the delay.
He couldn’t possibly see the surroundings, and how Mary, and her cancer, something much more important, was really going on.
And then there’s me. Even as an ophthalmologist, I don’t always see clearly.
Last Friday, I did surgery on my sweet elderly patient, Mrs Brown. When I finished, I went to the waiting area to find her husband I found him all right. He was sitting over in the corner, arms tied across his chest, a big old frown on his face.
I came in and said everything went fine, his wife was doing great. He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t even quit frowning. I kept talking, but the whole time I was thinking, “What the heck? The surgery went fine, his wife is doing well, we’re not even running late today, why is he so angry?”
I was frustrated with his response. And then I saw a little tear in the corner of his eye. The way I’d been looking at Mr Brown is similar to how people see when they have macular degeneration.
When you look at your loved one’s face and you have macular degeneration, you really can’t see their face: your central vision is distorted. Sometimes you can’t even see what’s right in front of you. You can usually see the surroundings.
What I was seeing when I saw Mr Brown was his gruff exterior that made him seem angry. I wasn’t seeing his center, his heart, and how, really, he was just worried about his wife of 43 years, the whole time we were in the operating room.
It wasn’t about me at all. With our busy lives, we’re becoming blind to each other. We don’t even look up from our phones in conversation or at the dinner table.
When we have metaphorical cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration, we can’t connect at all. In my personal journey from burnout, and in my work with others, helping them love medicine again, and helping us all love our lives again, I’ve discovered that the real gift of sight is that it allows us to truly see each other and connect.
And connection can happen so easily: setting down your cell phone, expressing a gratitude, sharing the best part of your day with someone you love. And it turns out connection is good for us: it strengthens our immune system, lets us live longer, and it reduces our anxiety and depression.
In fact, lack of social connection is worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lack of social connection can kill us.
A couple weeks ago, I was reading The Wall Street Journal. There’s a new study, just out by Brigham Young University, that said, “Social isolation increases our risk of death by 32%.”
Duke and the University of Arizona have been watching our connection go down the tubes for 30 years. Thirty years ago, we used to have at least three close friends.
Now we’re lucky if we have one close friend. And 25% of Americans say they have no one, no one to connect to or depend on. So, that amounts to about 80 million people in America that have no one.
And when I heard that number, I thought, “It’s like grains in the sand. 80 million! That’s such a big number, how can we wrap our heads around it?”
So, I want you to picture with me for a minute all the people that live in Texas, California and New York combined. Those are all the people who have no one.
Remember Joe, the scrub tech? A couple weeks after he’d been in our room, the head nurse told us that Joe had died of metastatic cancer. We didn’t even know he was sick. He’d been afraid to reach out, to connect. He hadn’t let us see him.
And all we could say is that we were grateful that we had connected to him. It changed our team forever. Seeing each other allows us to be our very best selves. It allows us to show up for each other. And it can allow us to save each other, whether saving each other happens in the operating room, in the office, at the dinner table, or on the TED stage.
In the Natal tribes of South Africa, members greet each other with “Sawubona,” which means, “I see you.” Their response is “ngikhona,” which means, “I am here.”
As an ophthalmologist, and as your connection doctor, I want to teach you how to save lives.
So here is my prescription for you: open your eyes, look at each other, and make the connection today.
Sawubona, I see you.