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First Person: Keeping Our Hearts Open



When I was studying basic science I did some volunteer work in a Brooklyn emergency room. It was my first close-up look at the workings of the human body and I was fascinated by it. I loved interacting with the patients and marveled at the way modern medicine could help restore health in life-threatening situations. Rather than being taken aback by the images of trauma I was drawn in by the vulnerability of the people who were brought in for care. There is often a tenderness and presence that emerges when people are in great need, qualities that are often put aside in everyday life.

I can remember only two times during those years when I was disturbed by what took place in the ER. The emergency room was a place bustling with conversation and activity. One morning on arriving at the hospital, rather than being greeted with enthusiasm by the nurses I had come to know and respect, I was met with a somber silence. I noticed some movement behind a curtain in a treatment room at the far end of the hallway. I made my way over there and standing outside of the room I announced my presence.


“Come In.”

Pulling back the curtain I saw a young hospital worker mopping blood off the floor next to a gurney.

He was pensive and slowly performing his task.

“What happened,” I asked.

“Suicide,” he said. “Couldn’t save him.”

“Where are the nurses?”

“A few are dealing with intakes. The ones who were here, well… they’re taking a break. It was a tough one.”

Even though I hadn’t been part of the attempt to save the man’s life I was privy to the effects of what happened, almost as an afterthought. It was an emotional reflection of what took place that morning. It affected me deeply for days.

I was shaken one other time by an experience in the emergency room. A young child had been brought in who had been struck by a car. We suspected that the girl was severely hurt by the trauma and quickly performed diagnostic tests. Surprisingly, after overcoming the initial shock she appeared to be in perfect health. The child not only survived the incident but was released the same day. While I was relieved by the outcome I was left with an uneasy feeling. This was a child. Somehow this sort of thing was not supposed to happen to children. The children who died last Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut were not so fortunate. As the news of the tragedy spread, these same words were whispered throughout our nation. This is not supposed to happen to children.

Today the airwaves are filled with speculations about how the misfortune that befell a small town in Connecticut last week can be prevented in the future. Talk of gun control and mental health. While they are all worthy discussions it is likely that nothing could have changed the course of events last week at Sandy Hook Elementary. In the silence that emerges when all these speculations are done, a quiet space envelops us all and we are left with grief. It holds us without words.

We are now in a time of deep winter, experiencing the longest nights of the year. It would not be wise—or possible—for nature to rush ahead to secure the longer days of spring. Can we follow nature’s lead, allowing this painful event to work through us, waiting until the light of our collective wisdom is revealed? Short of walling off every school with armed guards at the perimeter, there is no guarantee that we will be immune to suffering of this kind. Let us not wall off our hearts in this moment in an attempt to make sense of what happened last Friday. At this time when we all feel the wave of deep sadness that moves through our nation, we can have the courage to keep our hearts open. We can move forward with this open heart into a richer, more connected and more compassionate life.

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