24 Elul 5774
Last week I was having dinner with my good friend who was still “shaking” from her experience on Monday. After picking up her daughter from the airport, the two of them saw a movie at Cinema City, the local theater in our neighborhood. While waiting outside for her daughter, my friend was standing near the ticket windows when a car, being maneuvered into a disabled parking spot on the front row, suddenly hurtles into the crowd of individuals standing outside the theater, striking several and injuring many, some very severely. In the chaos that ensued, she called 911 and tried to help the victims (including the driver….who was stunned but not physically injured). I asked about the driver’s age. My friend estimated her to be in her late 70s.
Several questions crossed my mind during that conversation. Was the driver confused? Did her family know that she was confused or slow? If they knew or suspected, did they take any action? I am a doctor, so I had to ask myself, “Was she my patient? “
That same day I had been seeing a patient who is, at times, confused. She is supposed to take nine different medications but doesn’t know the names of but two of them. She came to see me for knee pain, back pain, shortness of breath, insomnia, and follow-up of her heart attack. Her daughter snuck into my office, clearly very angry because her mother had found a set of car keys and driven a young girl to the store. Concerns about her driving have already been reported to the DMV, and she has been instructed not to drive. She clearly remembers those instructions not to drive, but she willfully ignored the recommendations and did so anyway.
On that day I had already seen 22 other individuals, fielded numerous phone calls, answered questions from the staff and made dozens of decisions, many of which were very important to lots of individuals. I was tired, suffering especially from compassion fatigue. I articulated again my recommendation that she should not drive and specifically asked her daughter to take steps to see that the opportunity was not available. There were tears, lots of anger, not only because she perceived that I did not care about her but also because we couldn’t address all of her myriad of other complaints. I felt drained even more. Then I thought, if not me, then who will look out for all the people she might put in jeopardy?
I love the words of our prayer for those in need of healing. It asks for the blessings for those in need of healing, but it also asks to bless those who care for them with compassion and skill.
During the days of Elul, during which we prepare for the New Year and the Days of Atonement, I am going to ask myself what I need to do so that I can personally recharge. From where will the courage to do the right thing continue to come? What is skill without compassion, and from where will that come? Is it time to hang it all up? If not now, what are the steps that I personally need to take to find some joy in what I believe to be holy work? What are the challenges that others face (the rabbis, judges, teachers, and many more) who end their days with “empty tanks”? Should I care about them? One of my favorite quotes comes from Edward Everett: “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” I just need to try to find what that something is. I suspect others do, too.