Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Blisters and Calluses

I was in Texas this past weekend to visit my family before things get busy this summer with my hectic interview schedule. I got on the airplane this morning to return to Boston, and settled in my seat to study for my upcoming boards. Review books are often boring material, and I was suffering the added nuisance of having trouble turning the pages due to my tender fingers that were covered with several band aids. My fingers had gotten blistered the previous evening after I went to the driving range to hit some golf balls. I don’t play golf very often, but it’s an activity that two of my favorite people enjoy (my father and my uncle), so I found myself hitting golf balls on a hot sticky July evening in Texas...maybe not a well thought-out plan, but it was a good way to spend time with family.

One of the problems with being an infrequent golfer (in addition to losing at least a dozen balls every time you play), is that your fingers don’t have the necessary calluses to handle the substantial friction that is generated by your hands when you swing. As could be expected, several large blisters developed and ruptured on my fingers after we had hit a bucket of balls. (Of course, the remedy to this problem is to play more so that you develop thick hypertrophic skin at those key pressure points needed to grip the club and strike the ball.)

As I sat on the plane examining my fingers, I could not help but think about the upcoming new experiences I will have in Africa. Taking care of patients on the other side of the globe is going to probably be a psychologically abrasive experience initially. The adjustments will be countless: language barriers, culture shock, patients who present later in the course of their disease, limited technological resources, and homesickness…just to name a few. I’m sure my arrival to the hospital is going to expose a lot of soft vulnerable areas in my professional, physical, and emotional exterior that are going to hurt initially as I try to learn how to function in a foreign setting.

But the exciting thing about being in Kenya for such an extended period of time, is that I will be able to recover from that initial shock and adjust. I’m sure the first month will mostly be an educational experience for me, with the young hot shot (i.e. inexperienced) surgeon from Harvard learning “how it’s done” in the rest of the world away from the ivory tower. But hopefully, after that first month, I expect that the learning curve will start to flatten out, and my ability to contribute something to the hospital will climb higher and higher. And those areas of blistering will develop calluses (figuratively) from the persistent friction. I will be stronger and more able to serve my patients as time goes on, just like my father and uncle were able to hit the ball all day long without any pain whatsoever, because they developed their calluses long ago.

While no one looks forward to discomfort, I recognize that pain is a very useful response to the external environment. It alerts the individual to a new stress, and the body can respond appropriately. While it is often my instinct to avoid the stressor all together, I realize that I must suppress that instinct in order to achieve the most that life has to offer…whether it be a lower handicap on the golf course, or an amazing service opportunity in an exotic location. Of course there has to be some blistering along the way, but it’s okay because it only builds toughness in the end.

As I continue to look at my hands on the plane, I was less annoyed. I was thankful for the opportunity to spend some time with my family. I was thankful for the coaching on my swing (I had never hit the ball so straight). And, I was even thankful for the blisters…for the reminder that pain is a necessary step to becoming the man I want to be.

Yours in embracing adversity,

“Do you know what pain is Dr. Wilson? Pain is weakness leaving your body.”
~Dr. Carlos Fernandez-Del Castillo

PS: Things are going well with my preparations to leave for Kenya. The next several weeks will be full of fellowship interviews, studying for the written boards, and some moonlighting to help cover domestic expenses while I’m away.

PPS: Due to requests, I’m posting the video from the change show below.
Return to Martha’s Vineyard: Lamattina’s Last Stand. (If you know John, this video is hilarious…Even if you don’t know him it’s kind of funny.)


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