I find this time of year and the change of seasons one for reflection. It is particularly poignant for me as this is the time to celebrate and reflect on a year closing and a new one beginning in my spiritual tradition. Having grown up in New England, the autumn was magical, with the crisp air, crunchy apples, and the hillsides bursting with color. We in the PNW have crisp air and beautiful sunny days in autumn as the days grow short and send us inside (literally and figuratively) for more of our waking hours.
Taking time for reflection focuses us in the moment. Baba Ram Dass (a former Harvard psychology professor) wrote a whole book about this called Be Here Now. This book has a special place in my heart as it was recommended to me by an emergency physician teacher when I was in the throes of my medical internship. It was a time when I was navigating exhaustion, my late 20’s, plus the intensity of life and death in the emergency department.
I am reflecting on the last 3 columns I wrote on emergency care in Thurston County. It is far from ideal. We face many challenges as recipients of care in an overwhelmed system. There are many challenges for those working to serve our community to solve on our behalf. I hope for the best knowing forces for good are making efforts to improve on what we have now.
I have written about my special yoga teacher at Briggs YMCA, Rhett F. (I now know to be Fonseca). Less than two weeks ago, I headed out to Rhett’s class with my Japanese nephew Hiro in tow, an architect here from Portland, to check on his local project. On the way, we noticed four emergency vehicles at Plum Street YMCA. Something serious was going on inside. We arrived at Briggs a bit later than I like to set up our mats in this popular class. The room was full, as usual, but no Rhett. That was odd as he usually arrives early to greet students, new and old, as well as to introduce people to each other. He was, as they would say in my culture, a real schmoozer. Fifteen minutes beyond the start time, one of the trainers came in to say there had been an accident (vague, no details) and unless someone offered to teach, she would have to cancel class.
One of the students trained as a yoga teacher volunteered. She moved to the front and turned on her phone with Google Translate. Lo and behold, she is Chinese and does not speak English! Another student suggested she just demonstrate what to do. We were, after all, Rhett’s dedicated yoga students. So that is what she did. She taught the class with 4 English words: INHALE, EXHALE, OK, and NO (do not do it this way, do it this way she would demonstrate, such as relax your shoulders). We applauded her in thanks and gratitude for stepping up in that moment, especially with our collective concern. What she did was ‘so Rhett.’ He would have loved that!
When class was over, the substitute teacher excitedly came over to talk to Hiro, who responded in the only sentence he knows in Mandarin, “I am sorry I do not speak Chinese; I am Japanese.” This international experience made my day and would have made Rhett’s as he grew up in many Latin American countries before moving to the US.
Fast forward a week with still no information on Rhett. Finally, my friend and co-student who attended a yoga class with a sub a few days later filled me in as the class was updated. I could not face trying another teacher; I am so fussy about yoga teachers. The details she could not fill in, I sadly discovered myself.
Those emergency vehicles were there for Rhett. He had collapsed in the locker room (after his pre-yoga cycling workout) with a cardiac arrest. During the acute crisis and since, Rhett has received state-of-the-art care in Providence St. Peter’s Hospital, where he still lives, albeit in a dire state. His prognosis for recovery is grim. He is 67 years old (he always told his students his age as an example of why he did yoga) and an avid cyclist. Fit as a fiddle, full of life and connected to what is meaningful. Rhett was stricken during a rich ‘retirement’ doing what he loved with a disease he did not know he had. Heart disease. The silent killer. He must have had a premonition (we often do) as he asked his doctor for an EKG not a month before. A normal EKG, as his was, does not exclude heart disease.
Gratefully, I had the opportunity to visit him in the ICU and tell him the story about the yoga class in four words. He has been in a coma since the arrest and we know from many patients who have recovered, that people can hear when they are unconscious. Talk to them as I talked to Rhett.
We cannot know everything about our health and we cannot know our future. Death, loss, injuries, and angst find us because this is life. Life is not certain. Some find they have a terminal disease too late; others too early and live with the dread of knowing. Plus, every possibility you can think of and more.
The changes catch us because it is not easy to stay in a state of readiness to cope with the unexpected. In truth, we cannot know what is ahead nor find ourselves too comfortable with what is because change is inevitable. Change happens four times a day for the shifting logs and rocks on our shores with the tides. Our bodies are like the sea, 60% water, so we too are changing with the tides.
We can work at being healthy and flexible physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally like Rhett did. Then (hopefully) when change transpires, we can respond with serenity as I hope he is. Still, can we ever really be ready?
Ram Dass's Eastern spiritual teachers led him to write Be Here Now. The Rabbi I heard speak in Seattle over the New Year’s holiday, reminded us that the only moment we have is now. He said, “It is time to free ourselves from fear and worry and live in the moment.”
Seize the Day. It is only in this moment that we can truly live in this experience called LIFE that is finite and fleeting.
Debra L. Glasser, M.D., is a retired internal medicine physician in Olympia. Got a question for her? Write drdebra@theJOLTnews.com